By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Four stars out of five
Dir: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, James Fox, Trish Gates, Peter Hermann, Cheyenne Jackson, Ben Sliney
Flight 93 was aired in the United States on the A&E Channel in January this year, while last year the Discovery Channel produced the docudrama The Flight That Fought Back, both of which were favorably received .
United 93, however, is the first big-screen release.
Although the events on that day were disastrous, to say United 93 is a disaster movie would be off the mark. Unlike most disaster movies, the cast is small, there are no multiple plotlines and almost no attempt to offer any background to the main characters.
United 93 is a docudrama, in which director Paul Greengrass combines a cast of unfamiliar actors, actual characters and real footage from that fateful day five years ago to construct a movie that is both moving and terrifyingly gripping.
The drama focuses on not only the flight itself but also the air traffic control centers in Boston, Cleveland, New York and the military's Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS).
Greengrass is no beginner when it comes to dramatizing historical events. His 2002 movie, Bloody Sunday, depicting the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians during a civil rights march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, fueled a storm of protest at the time. Hand-held cameras in that film gave audiences the sense of "being there" and this is once again the case in United 93.
The scenes on the plane are played out in real time and the inclusion of mundane details, such as the routine safety instructions ignored by most, the serving of breakfast and small talk between passengers who never know each other's names, only adds to the documentary feel.
The scenes played out in the traffic control centers convey the chaos of Sept. 11 and also provide some breathing space (though not much) for the audience from the unfolding horror in the airliner.
National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) at the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Herndon, Va., cannot comprehend what is happening, particularly as it's his first day on the job, while Maj. James Fox at NEADS, another character playing himself, expresses his frustration at the delay in obtaining terms of engagement for his fighter pilots by exclaiming, "Do we have any communication with the president at all?"
As United 175 disappears off the air traffic control center's radar screen only to reappear in front of them en route to the World Trade Center, the gasps of disbelief as it careers into the South Tower encapsulate the horror of that day, the impact undiminished five years on.
The leader of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, is portrayed by Khalid Abdalla as thoughtful, diffident, even sensitive. He calls a loved one from the departure lounge to leave a farewell message on her answering machine, suggesting he is the only hijacker who has doubts about the task in hand.
The lack of famous faces to distract the audience overcomes any accusations that Greengrass is glamorizing events. Even the much-quoted phrase from passenger Todd Beamer, "Let's Roll," is understated to the point where it would go unnoticed in any other movie.
The final scene of the movie takes the audience into the airplane and, even though we know the outcome, it is very difficult to escape its intensity.
From the emotional telephone calls to family and friends that so effectively convey the fear and desperation of the doomed passengers to their efforts to take over the plane, viewers are unable to take their eyes off the screen.
You have become part of the experience, powerless to stop the ordeal faced by passengers and cabin crew.
The desperate efforts by passengers and cabin crew to overpower the hijackers is depicted as a heroic group effort rather than individual bravery--the actions of people with a basic will to survive, rather than any patriotic bid to save the United States.
In some ways, Greengrass may have played it too safe. Events on board the flight have been meticulously researched to the point where there is little directorial voice.
Yet this is a powerful and touching film that tells the story of the bravery and suffering of ordinary people both on the ground and in the air.
There will be movies to come featuring big-name actors and big budgets, but United 93 sets a standard that will be tough to surpass.
The movie opens Aug. 12.