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United 93

After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, it took Hollywood barely six months to release its first feature film about the event, and throughout World War II movie houses ran hundreds of dramas about U.S. soldiers at war, fighting enemies in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. Sixty years later, after 3,000 civilians were killed on September 11, 2001 by Islamic terrorists striking American targets, Hollywood's reaction was remarkably reserved. Conflicting views on politics and patriotism, which had stewed for decades, had shuttered Tinseltown's propaganda factory, and for nearly five years only a slew of (often politically charged) documentaries dared directly broach the subject of the deadly events and resulting wars. Even in 2006, the release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass's United 93 (predated by a TV rendition of the doomed hijacking entitled Flight 93), and the ABC-TV miniseries The Path to 9/11 were greeted with harsh rebuke from those who felt that not enough time had passed for dramatic recreations of the terrible events of that day — concerns that are often bolstered by fears of political manipulation and commercial opportunism.

United 93 was well worth the wait. In almost real-time, the film follows the events of the morning of September 11 that resulted in the downing of a hijacked airliner in a rural Pennsylvania field after three others had been purposefully crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and both towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Writer/director Paul Greengrass tracks four hijackers as they check in and board United Airlines flight 93 (bound from Newark to San Francisco) alongside their unwitting victims and nervously gauge the correct moment during the flight to spring their attack. For most of the film, Greengrass juxtaposes the flight itself with the evolution of reaction from FAA headquarters (as director of operations Ben Sliney coincidentally endured his first day on the job), NORAD, and concerned air traffic controllers as early warning signs are greeted with amused disbelief and confusion, and then with dawning horror as the severity of the situation becomes clear, and finally the panic of impotence as nothing can be done from the ground to thwart the attacks. For the final 20 minutes, after the other three planes have reached their targets and flight 93 is under the control of the hijackers, the movie focuses solely on the besieged passengers' last moments as they band together to fight back against their captors to prevent an even greater catastrophe.

*          *          *

Paul Greengrass — a British director whose only previous Hollywood effort was the well-received 2004 action sequel The Bourne Supremacy — handles the sensitive subject matter of United 93 with near-perfect delicacy, eschewing any hint of melodrama in favor of a strict docudrama approach. Playing out the unfolding scenario with unfailing straightness, Greengrass allows the infamy of the day to infuse every casual moment prior to the revelations of the terrorists' plan with growing dread. After the first ten minutes of the film, before anything notable has occurred onscreen, the story already resonates with a quantity and quality of tension so profound that each escalating nuance is devastating in a way that few movies would dare to attempt. By keeping his film so lean, and sticking as close as possible to the known unfolding of events, Greengrass maintains an unbelievable level of gutwrenching empathy throughout the entire 111-minute running time. This approach makes some moments of the film so emotionally taxing that they are difficult to endure, but they are a testament to the mastery with which it was made. United 93 is essentially a virtual reliving of unimaginably desperate moments, and Greengrass takes many monumental risks that all pay off with searing effect: casting mostly unfamiliar actors and even some real-life participants (Sliney, for example, plays himself) and rarely identifying characters by name keeps the progression of events vitally inconspicuous, contributing to the picture's overall verisimilitude, while his restraint from emphasizing incidents with musical cues or obvious camera work denotes a rare emotional discipline. Neither does Greengrass attempt to caricaturize or soften the villainy of the terrorists, allowing the actors to breathe reality into these difficult roles despite the undeniable pressures of political correctness. There isn't a false note to be found in United 93, making it an indispensable depiction of a pivotal day in history — one that will continue to have meaning for those who insist it should never be forgotten.

Universal's DVD release of United 93 arrives with a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Greengrass provides interesting solo commentary, while the single-disc edition of the movie includes the hour-long featurette "United 93: The Families and the Film," which documents many of the movie's actors meeting their characters' surviving family members, painting a hopeful, and yet painful, portrait of the peculiar effects of grief. Also included is "Memorial Pages," which are textual bios of all victims who died on the flight, as well as a preview for an upcoming TV series about New York City firefighters. A two-disc "Limited Special Edition" includes the documentary "Chasing Planes — Witnesses to 9/11." (Note: The DVD for the less-impressive A&E TV movie Flight 93 is available in deceptively similar packaging.)
—Gregory P. Dorr

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