It is a bleak experience, not to be undertaken lightly. Shot with cheap cameras in a documentary style and using the facts of the tragedy as its script, this masterfully balanced and authentic film opens amid the routine of Newark International Airport, where Flight 93 is being prepared for a flight to San Francisco. Five of the passengers are Islamic terrorists, determined to take over the plane and crash it into the White House. The film unfolds in two intertwined strands of story, what happened on the ground and what happened in the air. After establishing the terrorist’s intentions, the first half of the film depicts the gradual awareness in the air traffic control system that something is wrong, and the unpreparedness of the US Air Force chain of command. After a couple of nerve-wracking false starts, once the hijackers wrest control of the plane from the pilots, the film stays on the plane. As the frantic passengers become aware of the situation in Manhattan, a dreadful panic arrives in the film and never leaves. Although they try to take the plane back, improvising weapons and charging the cockpit, we know that this is a death ride and there is no redemption.
Much as he did in 2001’s Bloody Sunday, Greengrass sticks to the facts, allowing the film to unfold in its own horrific way without using any kind of flourish to embellish the story for drama or impact. As he did in Derry, and later in Omagh (which he produced) Greengrass worked closely with the families of the dead to ensure their loved ones were depicted honestly and fairly. The film is absolutely without sensationalism or affectation. Other than an opening fly-by of the Manhattan skyline, there is not a single shot in the film that could not come from the point of view of someone in the scene. No one event is selected as a midpoint of the drama, as modern cinema grammar dictates, and no one hero emerges. We never cut to an exterior shot of the plane falling from the sky, or see it careen from the ground. Events unfold here in real-time, which is exhausting. There is no clipped relief from the editor to bring us in and out of the action. There is no montage to spare us; we have to live it like they did.
The actors were carefully chosen from the ranks of character professionals that populate network cop shows and sit-coms. They look like us, talk like us, re-act like us. They are not drawn as heroes, they are not burdened with dramatic arcs to fulfil. There are no unthinking acts of selfless courage and no wittily scripted banter. Even the line "let's roll", taken up by the media as a banner of heroism in the days following the attacks, is delivered here as an off-camera aside. United 93 is absolutely honest in portraying the people that died on that day as ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, making the passengers gradual realisation of the dire situation facing them as convincing and affecting as if you were facing it yourself. We already know what happens, which makes the passengers desperate attempts to wrest control of the plane back from the terrorists all the more distressing. In these last scenes, Greengrass increases the movement of his cameras and the tempo of the editing to create a dreadful bedlam of noise and colour that contrasts powerfully with his previously meticulous ordering of time and place.
Although the immediate military response to the hijackings is hopelessly muddled and bureaucratic there is no attempt to moralise here. Beyond offering catharsis, Greengrass brave film offers no particular message about terrorism; the evil events speak for themselves. He similarly resists waving a patriotic flag and does not provide either a background to the terrorist’s actions or an explanation as to how the hijackings birthed the war on terror and created the shambles in Iraq.
If the film is anything, it is a memorial, a hewn-granite mausoleum of fear and futility, an eye-witness sketch of the face of death. It offers no comfort and neither should it. It is galvanising in its stark depiction of horror, unnervingly ordinary and arbitrary and empty. It only takes on meaning when viewed dispassionately as a collected sequence of events and the observer bears witness. But I’m warning you, it’s a tough job.