United 93 is an odd film by any standard. Filmmaker Paul Greengrass (notable for his terrific 2002 docudrama Bloody Sunday about the 1972 British Army massacre of 27 civilians in Northern Ireland) wrote and directed what is a disturbingly prosaic piece of dramatic conjecture about one of the most puzzling events of 9/11. As a fictionalized docudrama, United 93 punctures all suspension-of-disbelief because of the intrinsic absurdness that the mightiest military power on earth couldn’t scramble F-16 fighter planes to perform aerial escorts for the “11 commercial airliners” first believed hijacked on 9/11.
A somber prologue introduces four young Muslim men praying inside their hotel room in the wee hours on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The scene divulges a subtly racist undercurrent that plays out during the film with the thinly concealed hubris that America’s Neocons have benefited from under the guise of false patriotism since 9/11.
In the film’s production notes, Greengrass gives his mission statement: “There are lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11. Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history’s rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context… Filmmakers have a part to play, too, and I believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something much larger than the event itself—the DNA of our times.”
In practice, the filmmaker leverages the contrasting estimable talents of Ken Loach’s devoted director of photography Barry Akroyd (Raining Stones) with three editors: Clare Douglas (Bloody Sunday), Christopher Rouse (The Bourne Supremacy), and Richard Pearson (Men in Black II). His “clear and unflinching” gaze at the “single event” diverts in telling ways from recorded facts.
Greengrass gets a performance windfall from Ben Sliney, the actual FAA Operations Manager on duty at Herndon, Virginia on 9/11, playing himself with the hard-bitten charisma that comes from years of experience. However, Greengrass still can’t help nudging out dramatic truth when he has Sliney give the order for a “national ground stop” for all air traffic in the country, when, in fact, it was FAA head Jane Garvey who gave that order.
The cell phone/air phone calls are an area of tacit fiction that the auteur fudges with discreet but significant treatment. The actual recorded calls from the “passengers” of United Airlines Flight 93 are suspiciously vague and calculated. The calls were never more than a couple of sentences long and share a symmetrical brand of abstract logic that rings false in the context of a hijacked aircraft. They’re telling for their clipped structure and ridiculously short length. They don’t convey any of the mile-a-minute patter that a panicked person would use to call for immediate help in a hijack situation.
Ultimately, United 93 is a regurgitation of suspicious media-fueled speculation about events on an airplane that we know very little about. This is a movie that does more to discourage raising questions about what really happened to Flight 93 than it does to encourage debate over the bastion of lies that have been fed to the American people. MTW