"Let's roll!" Well, actually, "Are you guys ready? Let's roll... come on, let's go!" Herein lies the difference between the film that many people were either dreading or hoping for, and the film that English-born director Paul Greengrass ultimately produced. United 93 is in this way a marvel of understatement, opting whenever possible to downplay the subject's more incendiary facets, while maintaining a plausible correspondence to that day's grave events. Consequently, United 93 more closely resembles a memorial than it does a political tract -- Greengrass commemorates their heroism to the measure that the flight's braver passengers acted beyond their mere survival instincts, in order to prevent their plane from becoming the weapon that 9/11's earlier flights had become. That this might stimulate in the film's audience (myself included) the hope that they might act like these valiant men, should they ever find themselves in a similar situation, does not connote anything resembling propaganda; rather, what is in evidence is an art that elevates the spectator with the awareness of the capacities of human nature. Uplift has always been a part of great art (not to say that Greengrass' film is exactly this). To demand its suppression for fear of its political consequences is to participate in a cause made dubious by its dependence upon withholding facts or encouraging that thoughts and emotions of a certain moment to be forgotten.
Of course, the story of United 93 is by no means obscure to most American viewers. Then again, Greengrass attempts to reproduce the events of that day from an epistemological position that none of us shared. Simply put, United 93 puts us inside the plane and air traffic control centers as the events of 9/11 unfold in a facsimile of real-time. This is to say that Greengrass is interested in recreating the experiences of that day, not simply in telling a story, which he further conveys through his hand-held, interventionist camera work that places the spectator in a position inside the action. Greengrass' point in making United 93 is therefore quite clear: to give the viewer a sense of what it might have been like to participate more intimately in the incidences surrounding the hijacking of United flight 93.
What results is a narrative of great fascination that at once communicates the banality of that early Tuesday morning -- the flight 93 travelers on their cell phones holding their stiff coffees, the air traffic controllers nonchalantly preparing for an ordinary, problem-free day (after all the weather, the only x-factor, was perfect) -- as well as the extreme pressures that result once the situation has become clear. For the terrorists, with whom Greengrass begins his film, this exists from the outset; that the director has made this storytelling choice allows even these men to retain a modicum of humanity as they prepare for their inhumane violence. Again, this is a mark of realism, not of propaganda -- in spite of the murder that these men will commit, they must have experienced some nervousness, some doubt (not in their cause, perhaps, but in their ability to complete their mission) before they commenced with the hijacking. Greengrass shows that there is no need to exaggerate either the heroism of the passengers or the villainy of the terrorists; his narrative superbly honors the victims without succumbing to what might be an understandable tendency.
Once more, let us to return to one of the chief objections leveled against United 93: "why now?" After all, the Bush administration is finally being excoriated on the war and his administration's foreign policy in the way that many of his detractors feel is due. Why tempt fate with a film like United 93 if not to serve their interests? Again the response should be abundantly clear: even assuming that position, September, 11, 2001 was one of the most important days in our history, whose impact and memory provides us a key to understanding the world we live in today. And of course, those persons who indeed gave their lives that day -- to his credit, Greengrass allows them to first demonstrate a willingness to overcome their fears and do whatever necessary for the good of their country, before they seem to grasp for their survival in developing a contingent strategy for landing the plane -- deserve our continued remembrances and admiration. September 11th deserves not one but any number of films, given its centrality to American life in this new century, as well as for its verification of both humanity's capacity for evil and for bravery and heroism. Should this spate of movies ever arrive as one would expect it will, United 93 will undoubtedly remain one of their very best.