Monday, July 11, 2011

The Movie List: United 93 (2006)

Film: United 93
Director: Paul Greengrass
Oscar Nominations: 2 (Best Director, Paul Greengrass; Best Editing, Clare Douglas & Christopher Rouse & Richard Pearson)

As of this writing, it has almost been 10 years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. And after 10 years, it's still difficult to grasp exactly what happened on that day. We've seen the effects, the wars, the memorials, but we still can't truly comprehend what it was like to be in the World Trade Center or aboard those planes. United 93, made less than five years later, was greeted with some controversy upon its release, considering that the wounds of that day were far from healed (if they ever can be) and fears of exploitation. However, the film stands as a gut-punch emotional tribute to the victims of the attacks, particularly the brave passengers of United Flight 93 who fought back, sacrificing their lives to prevent the plane from reaching it's intended target.

The film takes a look at the events that transpired that day, alternating between the hijacking of United 93 and the chaos on the ground as air traffic controllers, FAA officials and the military rushes to make sense of the unimaginable. Most of us already know how it ends.

Director Greengrass faced an incredible balancing act here: it had to be honest without being unbearable, dramatic without being exploitative or exaggerated, and it had to build tension even though the end would be tragic. And through some sorcery he managed to pull it off splendidly. He and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (he of The Hurt Locker fame) establish some truly incredible chills, such as the opening scene in which the four soon-to-be-terrorists walk through airport security with knives, large batteries, and wires (all components of a bomb). Greengrass's trademark shaky-cam is employed, but here it makes sense, adding to the panic and confusion. It's a wise stylistic choice, one that has been abused in the years since (what happened to action sequences that make sense?).

A real strength of the film, though, is the cast, which features mostly unknown actors, the most recognizable of which are Cheyenne Jackson and Olivia Thirlby, both of whom only became well known in the years after the film (Jackson for 30 Rock and Glee, Thirlby for Juno and The Wackness). Many air traffic officials and military personnel played themselves from that day, boldly reliving the tragedy and contributing to the authentic feel of the film. Seeing their reactions doubles the gut-punches the images on the screen deliver.

United 93 is a difficult film to watch, even ten years after the events it depicts occured. Yet it is ultimately a film about hope, and how even in the face of tragedy we rise up and come together to survive. It's a worthy tribute to those who lost their lives.

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