Movie Reviews

Movie Review: United 93 – 9/11 As Seen Through The Eyes of the Only “Witnesses”

Written by Paul Greengrass
Directed by Paul Greengrass

I know someone who was on United 93 when it crashed. I avoided the films having to do with September 11th due to the people I knew who died that day, including the person on that flight. I can still remember her quite vividly at her nephew’s wedding and from other times we’d met through the years. After reading so many glowing reviews of United 93, I rented it from Netflix, still unsure if I would go through watching it.

I viewed the DVDs backward, watching all of the bonus material first. All of the families might have signed off, but her family wasn’t one of those interviewed. That is what I would expect as they did take any money from the Victim’s Fund, either. In the end, it came down to would I play the film or send it back unwatched?

United 93 begins with the hijackers on that day preparing themselves. They are praying, shaving, and showering. It doesn’t try to tell us why they did what they did. I suspect the answers to that are something people will be searching for for a long time yet to come (do the British yet understand why the colonies rebelled?) It just shows them going to Newark Airport and acting like the other passengers did on that day.

The normal functions of an airport, an airline, and a control tower are shown. It was an ordinary day to all of these people; they had no idea that it was about to become something much more.

I really liked the tale of the people who experienced that day beyond the victims. The story of the air traffic controllers is excellent and depicted quite well. This provides the narrative for all that is happening, from the realization of the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 through the chaos and the feelings of helplessness while watching it all unfold before their eyes on their equipment. The controllers at Newark Airport even had a bird’s-eye view of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center.

When the first plane disappeared from their screens, they had no idea what happened to it. It took a while for them to put it together, even seeing the smoke outside their own windows. The way this is shown is tremendous. That these people could see it unfolding before their eyes and still have a hard time processing what was going on that day says a lot about why almost eight hours later someone walked into a diner near my old house covered with the dust from those buildings having walked all the way from Manhattan.

The casting is excellent. More than one of the families who were interviewed in the BONUS FEATURES remarked on what a good job casting did with picking people who looked like their relatives, even down to the mannerisms. I had to stop the DVD the first time the person I knew was shown; it was a surreal moment and I didn’t think I would be able to watch the DVD from there. I don’t know how the families who were so much closer did it. But a huge kudos to the casting director for getting that right. It was something I didn’t think would happen.

Most of the people involved in the air traffic control centers portrayed themselves. Not being experienced actors, perhaps they were better able to draw on the genuine emotions they experienced on that day. They did a terrific job and it must have been quite difficult for some of them to relive all that they went through.

What is depicted on the plane is what is inferred from the many phone conversations the passengers of that ill-fated flight had with friends and family. There are many sources on the Internet that have reports of those conversations including those on answering machine tapes and voicemail. Events are extrapolated from there and handled quite well. It makes it clear this was a group effort and not just a few “heroes” who stood out above the rest. They had dreams of flying the plane like many of us have seen in so many movies where the control tower talks them down and everyone walks off nice and safe. Of course, that didn’t happen and perhaps that will be the one thought that stays in my brain long after this when I view movies with that plot point. In real life, it just didn’t happen that way.

I watched the film with a sense of dread. I already knew what the ending was going to be, so there was less suspense than in other dramatic films. That’s not to say that Director Paul Greengrass failed in any way. He was given material quite difficult to work with and I believe he crafted something that was the best anyone could do. Although it’s titled United 93, it spends about two-thirds of the movie on the air traffic controllers and other government officials trying to get a sense of what was happening. The confusion just surrounding them in ascertaining exactly how many planes was involved is astounding and it’s no wonder there were so many confusing reports that day.

I doubt I’ll see it again. My main purpose was to see how it held up to all of the exemplary reviews out there and it does that just fine. I don’t know how the families managed to do it because I don’t think I could have in their situation. Credit goes to Paul Greengrass for making an incredible film that’s more a narrative of the day than anything else and that doesn’t get into any finger-pointing or political issues. If you say you can’t see it, I understand perfectly. Up until the time this film was released, other than the Gaudet brothers documentary, this was the only film I had been able to bring myself to see about that day. Even all these years later, it’s still hard.


• Commentary with Director Paul Greengrass
• United 93: The Families and the Film
• Memorial Pages
• Twin Towers
• Chasing Planes – Witnesses to 9/11

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