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'United 93': Recent Painful History on Film


It was probably inevitable that the film United 93 would inspire controversy. Some have argued that it's too soon to tell the story of the 9/11 hijackings. Others say that Hollywood is exploiting the tragedy. Critic Bob Mondello says he had doubts about this movie, too, but seeing the film erased them.

BOB MONDELLO, reporting:

The dread you feel during the first hour or so of United 93 has everything to do with memory. The initial images are comparatively bright: a crisp September morning on the eastern seaboard, people drowsily heading for airports, boarding planes, taking off routinely. All of it terrifying in retrospect.

The film restlessly cuts from pilots to air traffic control rooms to passengers, and you wait for someone to realize things are not routine. The realization comes in a rush as the air traffic controllers lose track of one plane, then another, then a third.

(Soundbite of movie United 93)

Unidentified Male #1 (Actor): (As character) Which way is he heading? We've got to get track information..

Unidentified Male #2 (Actor): (As character) He's the, he was the Newark to San Francisco flight.

Unidentified Male #1 (Actor): (As character) Alright.

Unidentified Male #2 (Actor): (As character) He's going to..

MONDELLO: Remember the terrible helplessness and confusion you felt that morning? Well, director Paul Greengrass brings it flooding back as he lets the story unfold largely on the ground at first. And more or less in real time.

He does it without ever giving you time cues that would help you get your bearings as the authorities struggle to make sense of how those blips on their radar screens relate to the burning Trade Center on their TV screens. On Flight 93, once the hijacking is in progress, the passengers must put those same things together without the visuals.

(Soundbite of movie United 93)

Unidentified Male #3 (Actor): (As character) My wife says that there was an explosion at the World Trade Center.

Unidentified Male #4 (Actor): (As character) What did he say?

Unidentified Male #5 (Actor): (As character) Tell the, tell the stewardess. Two planes hit, two planes hit the World Trade Center.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers, working with the passengers' families, have pieced together what may have happened from the cell phone calls made that morning. And while no one can be sure what happened on the plane before it crashed, what's on screen seems all too plausible. From the actions of the terrorists to the passengers' growing awareness that this hijacking was not playing out as hijacking always had.

(Soundbite of movie United 93)

Unidentified Male #6 (Actor): (As character) An explosion?

Unidentified Male #7 (Actor): (As character) An explosion at the Pentagon. Not a fire. An explosion.

Unidentified Male #8 (Actor): (As character) We have to risk it.

Unidentified Male #9 (Actor): (As character) They are not going to land this plane. They are not going to take us back to the airport.

Unidentified Male #8 (Actor): (As character) Is there any other option we have?

Unidentified Male #7 (Actor): (As character) We're going to die. We're going to die. They're flying us into a building. We're going to die.

Unidentified Male #8 (Actor): (As character) There's a lot of us but we've got to do something. You see how low we are?

Unidentified Male #9 (Actor): (As character) Is there a weapon? Is there something we can use?

MONDELLO: I have learned a few defensive tricks to allow me to watch very intense films. One of them is concentrating on film technique, and during United 93, I worked that one hard. I registered the drums that were intensifying the dialogue, the editing speed that was pumping up tension. I noted camera moves that reminded me of the director's thriller, Bourne Supremacy, and his reality-based drama Bloody Sunday.

But none of my stratagems worked during the last eight minutes of this film when the passengers, at once desperate and heroic, try to take the plane back. Try not to die.

As the screen went black and the shouts went silent, I found myself out of breath because I'd been holding it for who knows how long. Powerful doesn't begin to describe the film's impact. A couple of weeks ago, the argument that artists should wait to tell this story made sense to me. It no longer does. Wait and you create something for people who no longer really remember that morning. We are all beginning to file away the intensity of what we felt. And as we reduce that tragic day to politics and memorials, we are starting to forget and heal.

With enormous skill, Paul Greengrass and his team remember, and the immediacy of United 93 on screen, the recognizable truth of it as experience is this extraordinary film's great strength.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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