United 93 written and directed by Paul Greengrass, with Lewis Alsamari, JJ Johnson and Polly Adams. 111 minutes. A Universal release. Opens Friday (April 28). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
United 93, a carefully constructed and intense docudrama that tracks the final hijacked plane of September 11, 2001 - the one that didn't get to its target - unfolds in something resembling real time, with considerable speed and a closely researched procedural exactitude.
Cutting back and forth between the plane and the various air traffic and command centres, United 93 veers between whodunnit and a when-they- gonna-do-it. The men who run the agencies that are supposed to keep America's skies under control react with exactly the same shock that everyone felt watching the events unfold on CNN.
Indeed, the desperate heroic measures of the doomed passengers of United 93 may be less interesting and more conventional by far than the administrative chaos that ensued when air traffic controllers in Boston, New York and Virginia suddenly lost control of the skies. That is, the heroism is trumped dramatically by the bureaucratic impotence that 9/11 revealed.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether it's "too soon" to have this kind of film about 9/11, though there's already been a highly rated TV movie about this very flight, and for the last year or so 9/11 has echoed through American movies. Both of Spielberg's 2005 films, War Of The Worlds and Munich, were 9/11 movies, for example. Engaging with the events of the day is something that popular culture, at its best, does.
Whether people want to shell out first-run prices to directly re-experience a national trauma, of course, is another question entirely, and United 93 may end up as a brilliantly and honestly made film that has no audience.
Director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, Omagh) is a bit of a specialist in the genre of recreating recent historical traumas. Its pace, dozens of pieces of narrative mosaic and absence of a central character make me wonder whether, if you tuned this in without knowing what it was about, the first half-hour or so would hold an audience. If we didn't already know what happened, we'd be waiting for the story to start.
It's a sign, I suppose, of how the familiar structures of Hollywood drama have infected our thinking about what movies should be. The largely unknown cast, plus one or two faintly familiar faces and acting wild cards like FAA air traffic manager Ben Sliney playing himself, has us waiting for the star to make his entrance.
United 93 is Die Hard on a plane, only Bruce Willis never shows up.