United 93 (2006)

Written & Directed by Paul Greengrass

For the longest time I have actually avoided this movie. I don’t think I need even explain myself. It is just such an unsavory topic that to relive it seems a masochistic exercise. But then there is the other half of me that has always wanted to see the film, the movie buff in me who has heard time and again of its brilliance. And yet still I avoid. It has been over 11 years now since the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, and since that time quite a bit has happened in this country. But the pain of 9/11 remains, the memory of the horrors experienced that day not soon forgotten. With most films I always search for that personal connection to make with the characters or the story, and the majority of the time that connection is vastly different from what any other individual might experience, which makes United 93 unique; we all experienced 9/11.

The images are very real to our lives and the sorrow still very real. I can’t possibly imagine attending this film just 5 years after the events. Nearly 12 years after the fact and I was an emotional wreck throughout the film, as director Paul Greengrass takes us through the events of that day. Greengrass’ direction is far and away the best I have ever seen from him, carefully constructing the pacing from start to finish as it remains taut throughout and crescendo’s into a nerve-wracking finale. This, with all of the personal horrors to experience, is far more effective in creating tension, suspense, and straight-forward horror than any horror film I have ever seen and that is because I can remember this. To have to relive it through this film was not the most pleasant experience. Greengrass perfectly captures the emotions of the day: disbelief, confusion, sorrow, anger, sympathy, patriotism, humanity. The film runs the gambit, a roller-coaster ride all the way through, keeping me on the edge of my seat all the way through, despite already knowing how it all must end, yet hoping with all my heart they somehow find a way to survive.

Greengrass chooses to use unrecognizable actors for his film, no stars to be seen (although I briefly spotted Olivia Thirlby, though she is hardly a star, especially at that point in her career). A brilliant move, casting these normal faces makes the characters universal, because they are. We aren’t seeing Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Julia Roberts, we are seeing ourselves, our friends, our loved ones. There is no depth of character ever explored, no backstory. They don’t need one. Theirs is ours. It is no matter what crimes or sins any of them, or any of us, have committed. We are all guilty of sin. Still, none of us deserve this fate. And of course through all of this the performances from the ensemble are beautifully understated, evoking the everyman and everywoman they represent.

There have been only a few films to this point, apart from documentaries, about September 11. United 93 stands head and shoulders above the rest for the simple fact that Greengrass’ realism presents the story, and just the story. In many ways the film takes advantage of our emotions, using our personal connection to the events to fill in the blanks, to relive our memories. The film is manipulative because we all have baggage, but that is only from the nature of our lives, not the direct intent of the filmmakers. Greengrass comes and goes with the story, stopping in long enough to show us the story unfold with real life grit and pace. No bullshit, just the story as it horrifically unfolded that Tuesday in September. United 93 is one of those films that is so perfectly done, yet so terribly real and personal that despite the fact that I call it a masterpiece, I am quite sure I may not ever want to experience it again willingly.

**** – Masterpiece

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