Time gets away with us regularly. As much as many days can drag, as much as you may feel one day that you aren’t going anywhere, suddenly you’ll blink and you’ve jumped forward a month. At least that’s how I feel. But there are always events that will stick with you; they can be world changing or just a significant time of happiness or sadness in your timeline. The 9/11 terrorist attacks make for one event where everyone can universally recall where they were when they heard the terrible news. But let’s take a moment to revisit and pay respects to a truly great piece of art that paid tribute to the efforts of one plane of passengers horrifically taken from us that day – Paul Greengrass’ masterful, intense, potent, and emotionally shattering, United 93.
The film chronicles the events of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, where the passengers all fought their hijackers to regain control of the plane before it could be flown to Washington D.C., resulting in the plane crashing into a field, killing all people on board.
Whilst the world was engulfed under the staggering attack on the World Trade Center, the noble efforts of the Flight 93 passengers were for a while lost in the chaos. With his film, Paul Greengrass created the most respectful and accurate tributes to the passengers that sacrificed themselves for the safety of their fellow citizens.
The key focus that Greengrass wanted to aim for was authenticity, and it’s his approach that makes United 93 so beautifully heartbreaking. The majority of the cast are unknowable in the Hollywood scene, pushing the film away from blockbuster fiction to cinematic documentary. I didn’t know these people when the film began, never seen their faces before, and so by knowing their fate the heartbreak comes in earnest, as no matter how many feelings I develop for the characters, I know they won’t be making it to the end of the film. If it were to star Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Keira Knightley, or any other well known and talented actor, the emotional punch wouldn’t have hit so hard, as we’re familiar with them, we know they perform and dramatise true life stories. For Greengrass, however, the drama exists in the authenticity, not the calibre of the stars.
The shooting of the film in real time was a brilliant decision. The film doesn’t let us look away for a moment, we never get to catch a breath of fresh air, or catch any form of escape from what’s happening at the scene. Essentially, Greengrass wants us to be one of the passengers – feel their stress, their dismay, anger and fear, and it works. When the hijackers take the plane, we’re scared, just as they were. When they learn of the other attacks going on, their fear increases, and so does ours. When the passengers vote what they’re going to do, the dread starts to creep in. When they assault the hijackers, we can barely watch. When the silent credits roll after the film commemorates the names of who died on Flight 93, we’re an emotional wreck. This happens because we experienced their anguish for ourselves – Greengrass thrust us into that plane with those passengers, because it was a story that needed to be told.
There will be many stories, videos and accounts that memorialise the victims of the World Trade Centre attacks fourteen years ago, and rightly so. It is one of the darkest stamps in world history, and will be discussed for many years to come. But we should not forget the efforts of the passengers of Flight 93, what they sacrificed, what they lost, and what they saved. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 encapsulated their story with tear-jerking brilliance, establishing himself as a seriously humanist director. It’s far from comfortable viewing, but it is brilliant – and quite possibly essential – cinema.