June 8, 2006 – Much has been written about whether the movie "United 93" comes too soon or not soon enough. Do we need to relive that horrific day again now?
British writer-director Paul Greengrass says, "yes, we do."
What Greengrass brings us, says Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune, is a "one-character story. The story is the character."
"The film is lean, harsh and remarkably free of cant," says Phillips. "It doesn't waste a single minute of its harrowing 111 minutes. Much of it unfolds in real time on board the aircraft. It does not waste time defining the undefinable. Nor does it strain for poetry when, with this story, prose is enough."
He continues, "Virtually all of it ignores the usual tear-jerking and 'human interest' pathos. The film leaves the larger interpretive measures and grand insights for 9/11 efforts to come. It was the right way to go: Recent tragic events respond well to the straight and narrow.
"If the film is a limited sort of masterwork," Phillips continues, "its stylistic and narrative parameters nonetheless feel right. Greengrass convinces you the story had to be told this way, this soon after the fact.
Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun agrees. "It is not too soon for 'United 93,' because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11," he says. "The entire story, every detail, is told in the present tense. We know what they know when they know it, and nothing else. Nothing about Al Qaeda, nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq, only events as they unfold. This is a masterful and heartbreaking film, and it does honor to the memory of the victims."
It seems clear that the grousing over whether Americans are too delicate to stomach the film now won't end anytime soon. One side says, "Forget it. It's over." Other folks embrace the film, the experience. "It is part of us," they say.
New Yorker critic David Denby says, "A fair amount of distaste for this movie has been building in recent weeks. Would the heroic event – which ended when the plane crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard – be exploited in some way? And why do we need to take this death trip?" But, Denby says the film "is a tremendous experience of fear, bewilderment, and resolution, and, when you replay the movie in your head afterward, you are likely to think that Greengrass made all the right choices."
Ebert says, "Scenes on board the plane alternate with scenes inside the National Air Traffic Control Center, airport towers, regional air traffic stations and a military command room. Here, too, there are no back stories. Just technicians living in the moment. Many of them are played by the actual people involved – air control manager Ben Sliney plays himself – we sense that in their command of procedure and jargon."
He continues, "When the controllers in the LaGuardia tower see the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, they recoil with shock and horror, and that moment in the film seems as real as it seemed to me on Sept. 11, 2001."
Denby concludes, "This is true existential filmmaking: there is only the next instant, and the one after that, and what are you going to do? Many films whip up tension with cunning and manipulation. As far as possible, this movie plays it straight. A few people made extraordinary use of those tormented minutes, and 'United 93' fully honors what was original and spontaneous and brave in their refusal to go quietly."
Born in England in 1955, Greengrass has directed, among other films, "Bloody Sunday," a re-creation of the British Army's massacre of Northern Irish protesters, in 1972, and "The Bourne Supremacy," a franchise action movie in which a near-silent Matt Damon tears up Europe.
"What unites all three films," says Phillips," is a dynamic use of the camera. It's handheld and thrust into the tumult, yet somehow – and this is the essence of Greengrass' art – we see what we need to see."
The role of Tod Beamer is played by David Alan Basche. Other actors include Peter Hermann, Omar Berdouni, Lewis Alsamari and Khalid Abdalla.
The movie is playing at Market Square East. It runs 1 hour, 51 minutes and is rated R for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence.
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