Monday, May 23, 2016

OVP: United 93 (2006)

Film: United 93 (2006)
Stars: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, Peter Herrmann, Sarmed al-Samarrai, David Alan Basche, Khalid Abdalla, Ben Sliney
Director: Paul Greengrass
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Director, Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

I'm sort of stunned that somehow, through the years, I have never seen Paul Greengrass's epic United 93.  The film is something that I remember at the time getting into arguments with people about, and I was coming out in favor of the film being made (some people thought that only five years after the 9/11 attacks it was inappropriate to make such a picture, but I argued that art is always about confronting our past and future, no matter how harrowing or horrifying), but for some reason I never caught it.  I rarely let finals or the like get in the way of me seeing a movie (I was the film critic for my school paper mostly as an excuse to actually go to the theater more than anything else), but somehow that's about the only way that this movie didn't happen in theaters for me, and instead was something I watched this past Sunday morning.  The film, playing as close to a documentary as one can without really hitting that actual non-fiction button (they even hired non-actors to play themselves in the film, most notably Ben Sliney), is a difficult film to process, but a powerful and masterful one.  The movie's just-the-facts approach, along with sharp editing and direction, makes it one of the most towering directorial achievements of 2006, if not the entire decade.

The film tells the story of United 93, the only one of the four hijacked planes during the 9/11 terrorist attacks to not reach its target.  The film plays in largely real-time, from the boarding of the flight, including looks at the scant amount of security at American airports during that period (the cockpit door was easily breached by the terrorists, and they were able to get box-cutters, knives, and a bomb (potentially real or fake, but clearly intended to appear real) onto the plane without being stopped at security), as well as how the military and the FAA were not prepared for an attack of this nature.  It is repeated during the first half of the film, which centers less on United 93 and more on the reactions of different government and private agencies to the attacks, but there had not been a hijacking of a commercial airplane in over a decade at the time, and the idea of a coordinated attack was something that the government/military was wholly unprepared for in terms of reaction.  It's worth noting, because they've become so ingrained into our culture in the past fifteen years, but the TSA wasn't in existence when the 9/11 attacks occurred-each individual airport handled their own security, which meant that there could be differences in the way screenings were handled, and there wasn't nearly the government oversight that there is now.

This indictment against both the FAA and the military is evident in Greengrass' direction.  It's interesting, nearly a decade later, to look at something like this and wonder what the filmmakers' thoughts were on the Bush administration.  At the time, people both were arguing that Greengrass didn't indict the president further for his lack of beefing up security in reaction to reports that an attack was imminent, while the film is hardly complimentary to the president's leadership, as the film repeatedly shows officials in the military trying to get a hold of President Bush and Vice President Cheney (in the case of the president, it's worth noting that he was at this point lambasted by progressive activists over his reading a children's story while the 9/11 attacks were happening, particularly Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11), hoping for some sort of guidance on how to handle this unprecedented attack, in which authority for any sort of military action would have to come from the highest levels of government.  In the wake of Donald Trump's attacks on the former president in this year's presidential primaries, it's interesting to watch this being as critical as it was of the president, particularly for a film that was still distributed by a major Hollywood studio.  After all, the country rallied around President Bush at almost unheard of levels after the attacks, and even in 2006 attacking the president over his handling of the events brought serious political risk.  I think Greengrass did as much he could in the film given the circumstances, and without it becoming a polarizing look at just one specific person.  Viewed in hindsight as well, it's difficult not to see why electing a president with strong leadership and critical thinking skills isn't vital, but that's a point for another article.

The film itself, therefore, is structured both in a reflection of our own horror as we watched that day in history, as well as then in the second half a look into what may have happened aboard United 93.  The film is at its most harrowing in these moments, and while it is bereft of big-name stars, people like Peter Herrmann and Rebecca Schull are recognizable enough here that it has the aura of an action-movie.  The fact that we know, in the audience, that no one gets out of this situation alive and that the plane will never land safely is daunting and incredibly difficult to watch.  Honestly you spend so much of the film, so effective are Greengrass and his Oscar-nominated editors, wanting to rewrite history that there are moments where you think that the passengers will, in fact, succeed in getting the plane landed.  Everything is there-a brave stewardess, friendships between unlikely strangers, handsome leading men in Herrmann and Jackson-it feels like at least something of an indictment on our "someone always saves the day" culture that we are able to wish that, even if in reality we know it hasn't happened.  The film is a powerful ride, from start to finish, but it's the moments where you see some glimmer of hope, only to know that in reality it would be squashed by hatred, that you see the true vision of Paul Greengrass.  The film is important and deeply sad (I cried for most of the second half), but it's also an excellent movie-one with great power to influence your everyday lives and your view of the world, as well as to make you cling to a better tomorrow.  I may never see it again, but that doesn't mean it's not a masterpiece, and by-far the best thing Greengrass has ever done.

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