May, 3, 2006
Universal Pictures' "United 93" plays for nearly two hours: the exact amount of time that elapsed during the flight whose story it tells. The film is a reenactment of the hijacking of United 93, which was seized by Al Qaeda and directed toward Washington, D.C., before resistance from passengers brought it down in a field in Pennsylvania.
"United 93" begins at the start of an average Tuesday as four Arab men pray, meditate and arm themselves for their mission. Iraqi Lewis Alsamari plays the role of Al-Qaeda operative Saeed Al-Ghamdi.
Unlike the previously released small-screen "Flight 93," which ran in January on A&E, this movie tells the story of those on the ground as well as those in the air. It chronicles with painstaking detail those who tracked American Airlines flights 11 and 175, and it portrays the "failure of imagination" and missing leadership that paralyzed America's first response to the hijackings.
Several actual participants play themselves, including Ben Sliney, who recreates the role he had on 9/11 as national operations manager for the FAA.
Patrick St. Esprit plays the role of Army Major Kevin Nayspany, who clamors for rules of engagement as the unthinkable prospect of shooting down an American airliner becomes a dire necessity.
As fuel-laden Boeing 757s plunge into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, there are a few surreal moments when the people in charge realize that CNN knows more about the attacks than they do. One of the most emotional moments comes when men in the air-traffic control tower of the Newark Airport watch in disbelief as American Airlines Flight 175 slams into the south tower of a distant World Trade Center.
Tragically, United 93 continues its taxi down the runway, and its passengers settle back for airline food and a long flight to San Francisco. All except for the four hijackers. With nerve-wracking patience, they wait for the appropriate time to seize the plane. Then, somewhere in the skies over Cleveland, they strike, seizing the plane at lightning speed and with shocking brutality. The film pulls no punches in presenting the hijackers as violent religious fanatics, though the hijackers are frightening because they are also so recognizably human. They are visibly nervous villains. Inevitably, their mania contrasts with the quiet desperation of college students, grandmothers and tourists whose flight to the coast has turned into a harrowing existential-drama.
The actors who play the flight crew in "United 93" are among the movie's triumphs. United Airlines flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw (played by Trish Gates) struggles to maintain her composure even as several coworkers are murdered before her eyes. "Please remain in your seats," she urges the passengers, as if the familiar routines of her profession can somehow restore sense to an insane situation. Terrified passengers Jeremy Glick (Peter Hermann) and Todd Beamer (David Allan Basche) huddle together for support as they gather information and plan the passengers' response.
Armed with Airfones to call relatives and coworkers, a few passengers realize that the hijackers are on a suicide mission. (In fact, we can only reconstruct what happened on United 93 from the actual phone calls passengers made that day.) The message is passed down the aisles, and soon an impromptu committee is formed to decide what the passengers should do. Then, armed with butter knives and wine bottles, the passengers of United 93 begin their own attack. While federal investigators have found it unlikely that passengers gained access to the cockpit, "United 93" takes dramatic license and shows the passengers breaching the cockpit door to grapple with suicide-pilot Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla). United 93, flying at high speed and low altitude, rolls over and slams into a Pennsylvania pasture.
Director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") has succeeded in recreating a highly emotional event from recent history. His insistence on a largely improvised script, mostly unknown actors and the use of handheld cameras brings a docudrama feel to this film.