A persuasively narrated, scrupulously tasteful re-creation of the downing of the fourth and final plane hijacked by Islamist terrorists on Sept. 11, United 93 is the first Hollywood feature film to take on that dreadful day. It won't be the last. (Next up, ready or not: Oliver Stone's World Trade Center.) Preceded by both the expected bluster and genuine relief that the film is as good as it is — and it is good, in a temple-pounding, sensory-overloading way that can provoke tears and a headache — it was written and directed by the British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, who has crossed the pond to make the feel-bad American movie of the year.
Greengrass cut his teeth in British television working on a current-affairs program and directing factually grounded films. His breakout film, Bloody Sunday, released in 2002, recreates a violent clash in 1972 between peaceful Irish protesters and trigger-happy British paratroopers that left more than a dozen marchers dead. Though produced for television, it toured the international film festival circuit and led directly to his next gig, The Bourne Supremacy, a hyper kinetic Hollywood spy thriller about an amnesiac CIA operative (played by Matt Damon). With jerky hand-held camerawork and nanosecond editing rhythms, Greengrass ratcheted up the action to Mach 5 and walked away with a canny box-office hit. Thrilling and gloomy in parts, it was the perfect warm-up for this new film.
Without ceremony, credits or introductory music, United 93 opens with a cluster of Muslim men murmuring prayers in a hotel room. The four are the hijackers later identified by the FBI as Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla), Saeed al-Ghamdi (Lewis Alsamari), Ahmed al-Haznawi (Omar Berdouni) and Ahmed al-Nami (Jamie Harding). Distinguished by his glasses and heavy black brows that hover over his worried eyes like the silhouette of a flying bird, Jarrah quickly becomes the most important hijacker in Greengrass's retelling. That's partly because Jarrah will pilot the plane, a photograph of the Capitol building taped to the control yoke, but also because in this recognizably human face we find a screen for whatever emotions we want to project: indecision, fear, regret or something more oblique, unknown.
United 93Directed by Paul GreengrassStarring: JJ Johnson (Captain Jason M. Dahl), Gary Commock (First Officer LeRoy Homer), Polly Adams (Deborah Welsh), Khalid Abdalla (Ziad Jarrah), Lewis Alsamari (Saeed al-Ghamdi), Omar Berdouni (Ahmed al-Haznawi)
Much of what happened on the plane remains unknown. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, some 15 minutes after the second plane hit the South Tower a United Airlines flight dispatcher began transmitting alerts to his planes, including United 93, warning pilots to guard against “cockpit intrusion.” The message was received by United 93 at 9:24am, three minutes after it had been transmitted. Two minutes later the pilot, Captain Jason Dahl (JJ Johnson), asked for confirmation. Two minutes after that, the hijackers breached the cockpit and gained control of the plane, probably murdering both pilots and a flight attendant. At 10:03am, after passengers tried to break down the cockpit door, United 93 plowed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone onboard.
In its vivid details and especially its narrative pacing, the account of the United 93 hijacking in the 9/11 report reads like a nail-biter, something cooked up by Sebastian Junger. Drawing on different sources, including the report and family members, Greengrass follows the same trajectory as the report, with most of the screen time devoted to the period between takeoff and the excruciating moments before the plane crashed. The film carries the standard caution that it is “a creative work based on fact,” yet Greengrass's use of nonfiction tropes, like the jagged camerawork and the rushed, overlapping shards of naturalistic dialogue, invests his storytelling with a visceral, combat-zone verisimilitude. And yet at the same time, beat for beat, the whole thing plays out very much according to the Hollywood playbook.