Unsung Masterpiece: ‘United 93’
The audience reluctance that greeted United 93 and stuck with it after its release is certainly understandable. Released only four years after the horror of September 11, Paul Greengrass’ docudrama take on the saga of United Airlines Flight 93 is hardly fun escapist entertainment. But you’d be hard pressed not only to find a better film from the last decade, but also to find one that so strongly slams our faces into some of the most important questions about cinema as an art form. What is the artistic value of cinema verite, in which the viewer is thrust into a dramatic situation stripped of narrative dressing and meant only to live through potentially terrifying experiences? Is there merit to using the theater as a means to present horrific historical events without any clear political or social context? What is the value of putting your audience through a meat-grinder without providing any tangible catharsis? All valid and important questions.
United 93 is certainly quite the conversation starter. So why it is a masterpiece? The label can be supported by a three-sided analysis.
First of all, the film is a masterful technical achievement, both in its technique and in the way in succeeds in pushing every necessary button to terrify and affect its audience. Greengrass’ camera treats every aspect of the film equally, refusing to dwell on a subject to the point of glorification or to lessen the dramatic significance of any player, even the highjackers. The heroes don’t get different camera angles than the villains nor do they get different dramatic music (there is no music). The film views these events straight-up, almost in real time, allowing our terror to flow from a story we already know the ending to. Indeed, our knowledge of the ending makes the hyper-realistic approach all the more horrifying. Every voice, every image, every sound is used to paint as realistic a picture as possible about what happened that day, both onboard Flight 93 and on the ground in the nation’s air-traffic control headquarters. Greengrass uses expert sound sound design and a superb sense of space to lock his audience into an inescapable emotional corner. The merits and flaws of such an approach, especially when dealing with such a fresh national wound, are certainly food for debate, but it cannot be debated that the film itself accomplishes the task through the high-level filmmaking on display.
The film also has a great deal of value as a historical document. It’s portrayal of the crisis through the air-traffic controllers is an absorbing and incredibly realistic account that becomes almost as frightening and suspenseful as the events on the plane. For all the carnage that took place that day, the work done by the people in air traffic control was remarkable, and the film will serve as a testament to that fact for a long time to come. The film’s status as a historical document does run it into some interesting yet well-founded trouble, however, since everyone aboard Flight 93 perished and it’s impossible to really know all of the things that the film presents as fact. Greengrass does use every single bit of research available to him, though, from black box recordings to phone calls placed to friends and family before the plane went down, so it’s likely as real and visceral an account as we’ll ever see, whether the context be artistic or historical. The feel of the entire film is one of absolute veracity, and it is from this obsessive attention to detail that it draws much of its substantial power.
The third way in which United 93 displays its cinematic merit is perhaps its most distinctive. Whereas many, many films have examined the banality of evil, few have explored the banality of heroism. That United 93 does this, and does it so well, in recreating one of this country’s most painful hours is a testament to its bravery and its commitment to its cinema verite goals. That the passengers who tried in vain to retake Flight 93 are heroes is not in question. However, the presentation of their heroism is of a kind rarely seen in cinema, and even more rarely seen in presentations of heroes inducted into our own national canon. These passengers are just normal folks, which makes their gumption of courage all the more impressive. But their heroism also stems from pretty normal roots, notably a readily apparent desire for self-preservation. They haven’t accepted their own fates, and therefore cannot be said to be acting purely on behalf of unseen potential victims on the ground. From a filmmaking standpoint, their heroic acts are not preceded by grandiose speeches nor are they accompanied by glorious orchestral notes or aggrandizing slow-motion. In fact, their push to retake the plane is marked by a striking if justifiable savagery. Now, there is black and white here. This is, at its core, a battle between good and evil. But onscreen, as our eyes consider it, it’s a chaotic and animalistic grapple with grunting and screaming and fingernails and bludgeons. It’s a decidedly unpoetic depiction of very real heroism, which comes not from long struggle or carefully mounted revolution against tyranny but rather from the rapid progression of shock by, examination of, and reaction to a horrific situation anchored by a desire to preserve both their lives and the lives of others. It almost looks like instinctual human behavior, like an even-tempered yet wild animal backed into a corner by a nasty mean animal. This is a daring presentation of these people that somehow manages to honor their heroism while rooting their heroics in a palpable reality, and in my opinion its the most substantial artistic accomplishment of the film.
As a viewing experience, United 93 is one of the most stirring, painful, and exhausting I’ve ever had. I literally have to sit up in the dark as the credits roll and recover from what I’ve just seen. This underscores, however, that this film is not entertainment, and while that may have kept people from the multiplex and relegated the film to under appreciated status, it doesn’t take away the enormous quality and importance of it as a consummate work of art. This one will stick around for a long time, and I hope that as more time passes, more people will observe the lengths to which it both preserves and honors the heroism and the pain of that dark day nearly nine years ago.