June 5, 2006 -- “United 93” is a good example of how you don't have to spend a lot of money to make a powerful, excellent film. This film, made without big stars, without big special effects, without melodramatic gimmicks and without a big budget, is the best film of the year so far. It is light years ahead of the competition. It packs a devastating emotional impact without lowering itself to melodrama. Spare, lean and understated, it shows a mastery of the filmmaker's art.
Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) doesn't insert politics into this film and he doesn't use cheap theatrics. The film honors the passengers of the doomed flight and others on the ground who made hard decisions under incredible pressure and who acted swiftly and courageously. Most of those involved correctly sized up the situation on September 11, 2001 and did what had to be done. Director of photography Barry Ackroyd uses hand-held cameras in the film to achieve a documentary look. Also adding to the film's realistic look are several real-life flight attendants, air traffic controllers, airline pilots and others who play themselves, or people who had the same kinds of jobs they have. One of the key characters in the film is Ben Sliney, National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s operations command center in Herndon, Virginia. That fateful day, 9/11/01, happened to be Sliney's first day as national operations manager. He would end up giving an unprecedented order to ground all air traffic in the United States. Ben Sliney appears in the film as himself.
The film unfolds in real time. We see the passengers arriving at the airport. We see the pilots and stewardesses going through their normal routines. We see air traffic controllers, personnel at the command center and personnel at the military’s operations center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector. We also see the terrorists making their preparations for the attack. The whole film takes place in just a few sets, like a play. Everything takes place aboard the airplane (an actual Boeing 757 was reconstructed on a soundstage for those scenes), an airport lounge, air traffic control rooms, and in military and FAA command centers. In each case, we witness the action from the point of view of the characters as they try to figure out what is happening. They gradually learn the horrible truth and quickly come up with a plan of action. Even though we know what is going to happen, the tension builds inexorably to the climax.
The passengers on United 93 fought the first battle in the war on terror. Realizing that they were going to die if they did nothing, they chose to take over the plane in an attempt to rescue themselves. They chose life, or at least a chance at life, while the hijackers had chosen death. While the military war on terror has turned into a bungled war for oil in the last five years, it is worth remembering a time when a real battle against terrorists was fought on the most fundamental level possible, for the highest stakes possible. Some will say the passengers died for their country, and you can make an argument for that point of view. I think it is more accurate to say they chose the course of action that gave them the best chance to live. Their actions spoke louder than any pro-life slogan. Their actions said that they loved their wives, their children, their husbands, their fathers and mothers, that life is good and it is worth living. They were not going to give up their lives without a fight. They fought hard to live and they almost made it.
It is worth remembering in the mean-spirited world we live in that most of us in the industrialized nations have an easy life. For most of us, life is good, though we often complain that it is not. We see bickering husbands, wives and children on TV and in the movies (such as in the movie “The Break-Up”). Families yell and scream at each other on trashy TV shows. Yet there was none of this on September 11, 2001. The people on United 93 phoned home and told their families that they loved them. After the terrorist attacks, distraught people posted pictures of lost husbands, wives and other family members who were missing. Many of these people were interviewed on television and in newspapers and magazines. Not once did I hear anyone speak ill of the missing. Instead, they spoke of how the missing people were loved and admired, how kind, funny, brave and compassionate they were, how the world was diminished by their loss.
Most people are good people. Most families love each other. Life is good. That is reality, a reality too seldom seen in the entertainment media. Reality doesn't sell newspapers. It doesn't sell movie tickets. It doesn't attract TV viewers. Conflict is what sells. Conflict has drama, urgency, intensity, immediacy, and it spawns bitterness, envy, hatred and violence, and that makes money. Most people who write books, screenplays and teleplays are not happy people. They push their bleak world view relentlessly on the rest of us through the entertainment media. It is good to remember reality once in a while. Watch “United 93.” It is about as real and as pro-life as it gets. This film rates an A.
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