Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93 - Movie Review

United 93 2006

When faced with the notion of watching a fictionalized retelling of the doomed flight of “United 93” on that infamous September morning – we had to pause and reflect. For you see, amongst the flag waving and the collar wringing surrounding the dramatization of one of the U.S.’s darkest days, there sat a lone figure named Paul Greengrass who in wanting to retell the story faced a barrage of questions.

“Was it too soon?”, “Is film meant to be entertainment or educational?”, “Why isn’t Bruce Willis playing the pilot?”, and of course our favorite Did it really happen? Honestly. Apparently you have been waiting for our reply – so here it is.

It is never too soon to examine historical events, if they are done with a sense of respect and at least a passing nod to facts. While it is true that previous films based on real events may be fictionalized gloss, this does not always have to be the case. And while the dramatic reenactment of political events are often powerful and emotional, it is usually true that filmmakers have resorted to “little white lies” in their depictions to help flesh out the characters, motivations and plotholes.

Some very fine films have been made based on actual events, from the landmark “The Battleship Potemkin”, to “The Battle of Algiers”, “All the President’s Men”, “Missing”, “A World Apart” to last year’s “Munich”. Some films, like the infamous “JFK” have managed to entertain the public and charm the critics while simultaneously infuriating the fact checkers and armchair historians.

In this age of documentary fever, we are fully aware that even a film labeled as non-fiction can hedge the facts in order to hit home the dramatic moments, so we actually applaud the filmmakers of “United 93” for attempting a dramatic recreation of the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001. As we all know by now, the other three planes wrought devastation and terror on an unsuspecting public. For many, that morning is transfixed in their memory with the famous visuals of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. By focusing on the fourth plane to be taken down by terrorists, the filmmakers are attempting to recreate this tragically bleak moment in time in the human terms of the heroic attempts by the passengers to regain control of the plane.

Writer / Director Paul Greengrass who is most well known stateside for his strong handling of the second film in the spy action franchise “The Bourne Supremacy” starring our future husband Matt Damon, has seemingly gone the extra mile in attending to the honest and straightforward portrayal of this politically charged drama. Casting the roles with little known character actors and in some cases the actual participants – he created a film that is a rare hybrid of fact and fiction.

Now, some have raised the issue as to what audience this film is aimed at. Who in their right mind would want to see this tragic moment reenacted before our helpless eyes? It is attempting to appeal to voyeurs? We find this line of thinking to be hilariously hypocritical. Expanding on Jean-Luc Godard’s famous aphorism describing the nature of cinema: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” We ask this question in return: “How many scenes of death and violence have you watched in your moviegoing lifetime?” Arriving in cinemas in the same season as a third “Mission: Impossible III” and the remake of “Poseidon” – “United 93” may be based on a particularly rough piece of history, but it certainly does not change the landscape of movie violence as we know it. If anything, it manages to depict violence and terror in purely human terms that makes the emotion not only believable, but truly cathartic to watch.

We think the larger question is what exactly do you think film is? It has always walked the fine line between fact and fiction. From the very dawn of moviemaking, the creators involved have attempted to illicit emotional reactions by portraying events that appeal to our most base qualities. We go to the movies to be entertained, shocked, regaled, tempted, and beguiled or in most cases bored to tears. While this film may be many things, it is not boring.

The scenario takes an omniscient point of view by focusing its camera on the cabin crew, passengers, air traffic controllers and military personnel who are slowly drawn into the horrifying realization that United flight 93 has been hijacked to act as a guided missile to some undisclosed political target. Despite our knowing the final outcome, we find ourselves becoming more engrossed in the proceedings. Credit the strength of Paul Greengrass’ blessedly restrained pen for not demonizing the terrorists out of proportion and for avoiding “Rambo” like heroics from the passengers. Either lesser approach would have sunk this flick.

This is not a film about dramatic performances, or heroic actions per se. It is a film concerning the way we react under the direst circumstances. Some of the people involved where heroic, some were concerned, most confused and some were possessed by a fervor undreamt of to many Americans at the time. The performances are uniformly fine, with one or two exceptions from the real life participants who recreate their roles as confused air traffic controllers, et al. Clearly they are not looking for a future with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and ultimately that is not necessary. We understand the need to pay homage and to compress believability into reality. And ultimately it works.

The main focus for many people will be the doomed passengers and crew aboard the plane. The casting here shines through. Our future husband Cheyenne Jackson portrays the out and proud Rugby player (although there is no mention of his sexuality in the script), who helps provide the muscle in the final scuttle.


Christian Clemenson as Thomas Burnett and David Alan Basche as Todd Beamer provide able support, in particular with their un-Movie Star looks.

As one of the hijackers, Khalid Abdalla is perhaps the most noteworthy of the cast. His ability to handle and modulate the mounting hysteria necessary to pull off the crime is the central dramatic thrust of the entire film. For in waiting to attack the crew of the plane, the initial hesitation by the hijackers provides the passengers with enough time prior to reaching their target to begin to form their plan.

When the attempted overthrow occurs, it is not one typically seen in Hollywood action flicks. It is brutal, panicked, bloody and hectic. The final moments of a desperate bid to enter the cockpit and resume control form the hijackers is the visual definition of on your seat tension. If we had to pick one defining moment of the film’s ultimate success, it would be the visual of various hands struggling to regain control of the death spiraling plane.

There will certainly be moments to quibble with. The film opens and ends with the sound of prayers. From the Salah to the 23rd Psalm – there is no escaping the implied parallels between Islam and Christianity. We appreciate that Mr. Greengrass attempted to use this motif as a dramatic leverage, but still question its ultimate success. Then again, to ignore the religious aspect to the historical moment might have been too gloss over the reality of the conflict. Time will tell, we suppose.

We may always wonder what actually happened aboard United flight # 93, but by staying grounded in his storytelling capabilities – writer / director Paul Greengrass has created a film that pays tribute to all the lives affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring
Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham
David Alan Basche as Todd Beamer
Christian Clemenson as Thomas E. Burnett, Jr.
Trish Gates as Sandra Bradshaw
Peter Hermann as Jeremy Glick
JJ Johnson as Captain Jason M. Dahl
Gary Commock as First Officer LeRoy Homer
Denny Dillon as Colleen Fraser
Ben Sliney as Himself
Khalid Abdalla as Ziad Jarrah
Lewis Alsamari as Saeed Al Ghamdi
Omar Berdouni as Ahmed Al Haznawi
Jaime Harding as Ahmed Al Nami

Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson & Christopher Rouse
Production Design by Dominic Watkins
Art Direction by Romek Delmata & Joanna Foley
Costume Design by Lorraine Carson, Dinah Collin & Liz McGarrity
Original Music by John Powell

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