I'm sitting on the bus heading to the local Vue cinema at Omni Centre for the press screening of United 93, and already I'm feeling anxious about it. Why? Well there's an underlying level of pressure for me, I'm Scottish and wasn't affected by the tragedy as much as America was. I can wholly understand it having seen the after effects of Lockerbie and being closer to the years of mainland terrorism from the IRA, but for America and specifically the surviving families and New Yorkers this is an extremely personal event I'm about to watch and pass judgement on.
Not only that but I carry the weight that this film I'm about to see will chronicle the last recorded moments of people aboard that plane. Real people just everyday travelling, people like you and me. What if I don't like the film?
So now, as I'm standing here about to go in, I hope that I do like the movie, and I stress that word movie. For if I don't will that be taken as a reflection of my enjoyment of the film or can the events not be separated from the drama played out on the screen?
After watching the film several hours ago, there are some images which are staying with me and firmly mark key moments in the story. The closing of the cockpit door, the city view from Newark control tower, the frustration of the Military, the confusion of the FAA, the screams of the passengers, the footage of the towers, the shocked silence of the Military after the Pentagon is hit, and the hands on the flight stick.
The images are powerful and emotive, and go a long way to tell you how hard it is to watch this film. All the way through the reality of the situation is with you. These people are real, they said these words and may well have carried out these actions, this hits home hard near the end when the characters of the passengers begin to reveal themselves and they realise their lives may well be over. These are perhaps the most difficult scenes I've ever watched, and you can't help but think "if that was me..."
This is the key to how hard hitting the film is, it's the connection to the real events. The widest reaching and perhaps hardest hitting of our time. An event that touched all of those who watched first hand, listened live, or watched the television images from afar. The film cannot be separated from the actual events, and nor should it.
So to the review.
There are a few things that bother me about modern film making, and one is the reliance on the shaky-cam that we first saw widely used to great effect in NYPD Blue. Nowadays this effect is heavily overused. Just a tad too much on the shaky side and you feel rattled and find the events difficult to watch. This is something I picked up on in the Bourne series and it had a distinctly negative effect on the film.
Thankfully the shaky-cam was at a minimum and it did manage to give you the feeling of being there, of watching events and turning quickly from person to person. It was used very effectively and shows that if toned down it's a strong film making tool. However, the focussing of the camera was another matter. I sometimes found this hard to watch.
For instance a character would appear onscreen and begin talking, as the camera cut to them it's slightly out of focus, on a few occasions it was so far out of focus it was on the character behind them. This seemed to only happen in a few places, particularly the FAA headquarters, but it was enough to distract me. I found my eyes straining a few times and my concentration would slip from the film and onto the focussing itself. Yet the story kept dragging me in every time. It was certainly an annoyance but not an overly negative aspect of the film.
Greengrass as both writer and director does a superb job in taking a complex situation with so many different involvements and cutting it down to an almost real time, single track, event. You would expect with so many things going on at once that there would be a need for split screen, or that you would leave the cinema with feeling unsatisfied or missing something from the story. Yet those feelings aren't apparent. It is clear that careful consideration has gone into what scenes to show and how to get across the confusion amongst everyone that day, pulling all the relevant failings into the movie without pointing too much blame and making an expose out of it.
This is one of the big surprises for me. When I arrived to watch the film I had heard that the focus was not so much on the United 93 flight itself, but much more on the entire day, and although United 93 received the attention it deserved, I was surprised how much more this was a film about the events of September the 11th.
Portraying all the events of the day and not just those of United 93 in isolation told a much richer and deeper tale. It engaged the audience in a much stronger way, and built the tension and the enormity of the situation far greater than the single hijacking would have. This also provides the film with the chance of longevity, as a learning for those who see the film in the future and didn't live through the actual events. It will help explain what happened and why people made their choices, and not just act as a tale to drag them into the emotional weightiness of the moment.
Something else Greengrass has managed to pull through are the excellent natural performances of the cast. Not just from a few notable actors either, but from the entire cast. There's not one character that you see that doesn't seem as though they are experiencing real live emotions right there in front of the camera, and it's even harder to distinguish the real actors from those portraying themselves.
The editing of the film is another aspect that was noticeably strong. At times the edits are short and fast, and yet none of it seems to be too much or too little. The pace is well defined, the dramatic moments provide the perfect amount of tension, and there's no apparent cooling off moments, it just builds and builds. Perhaps it is heavily aided by that feeling I mentioned before, where the connection with reality and knowing of events builds the tension and dread with the audience. Whichever, it is done perfectly. However it would be interesting to hear the review of someone who had never witnessed the events, and that may be some time away.
At the start of the film we see the hijackers, and an interesting thing happens here, Greengrass humanises them from the outset. They pray, wash, and prepare themselves for what you know is going to be their last day and on their part a hateful act of terrorism, yet they aren't instantly demonised. In fact throughout this movie you see flashes of their humanity and there is never a resort to throw in a stereotypical hijacker character who is a complete zealot, almost mad, and without a single ounce of fear. It's only when the film turns its full attention to the flight do we see them show how far removed they are from everyday people. Throughout the film you can clearly see the fear of the lead hijacker, until the moment when his religious beliefs take over from his humanity.
I suspect that paragraph may cause a little controversy, and I'm surprised there haven't been more similar comments in the reviews to date. Just don't think for a moment that this film is being sympathetic to the hijackers, in fact if you watch it you'll see the entire opposite. What it isn't doing though is hiding their own human characteristics behind a Hollywood stereotype, and this makes for a stronger and more believable story.
One of the moments that sticks out early in the film is when we start to see the people who are going to be aboard the plane, and this is where I began to feel the tension and dread build up. We see the stewardesses heading towards the flight and the pilots chatting with each other as they head out to the plane. We are even shown the passengers sitting in the lounge awaiting the boarding call, going about their normal business. It's really here that the separation of the hijackers from normal people begins and we see them sitting amongst the passengers in a moment that I just could not comprehend. How could these men sit there, knowing what the are about to do?
These moments are portrayed extremely well, and again credit must go to Greengrass for not resorting to clichés or standard characterisations. He has shown people as they really, and as natural as they would have been on any other day.
These introductions end when the cabin crew and passengers are aboard, with external events already underway the feeling of dread is high and you can feel yourself growing tenser with every moment. You find yourself almost wishing that something would change drastically and these people would be saved before they take off. It's at that moment the flight door closes in one of the eeriest shots of the film. It closes with a resounding thud and it's here that the music track begins. Before that moment I wasn't really aware of any music playing, but from here on the music track is evident. It's never too much though and is used for dramatic effect, and at no point does it detract from the story.
When the hijackings begin it's clear to see the confusion that both the FAA and the Military were suffering from. There is never blame apportioned to anyone, and even when you see the frustration of officials at others inaction you don't feel as though the film is pointing the finger. Instead you are caught up in the chaos as much as the characters you are watching and you can feel their frustrations.
This must have been one of the most difficult aspect of the script, not to make the film push the audience sympathies with one group and making you feel as though there was distinct blame. This is something that clearly comes through in the official 9/11 Commission Report, that there was no single point of failure or some specific person to point a finger at. Yet with a writer or director who had their own strong beliefs, it would have been tempting and quite easy to align sympathies.
Another part of the story where my concern lay was with the moment the passengers decided to storm the cockpit and attack the hijackers. I had thought that this might be overly heroic, or dripping with the sickly sweet all American portrayal that we see in so many other dramas of courage and human strength. However I did suspect that Greengrass would not fall fowl of this, my concern was with the Studio and Producers influence. Luckily this is not the case, and these scenes are handled with as much care and attention as the rest of the film. There's no over-dramatising, no over-play on the emotional aspect, no over-anything. The story is told plainly and as factually as possible, and for the moments where no one really can know what happens, there's no great change in peoples character or conviction. It's all played for real.
Overall this movie is extremely emotional, utterly compelling and very chilling. The last few moments of the flight are perhaps the most uncomfortable I've ever seen and yet in the same breath they are a fitting memory to those passengers and crew who may well have fought so bravely to regain control. Those final images of the hands on the flight stick are perhaps the strongest and most iconic of the film. Indeed they may become the most iconic of the story of United 93 itself.
Greengrass has created an amazing film which documents the events of that day, and tells one of the most tragic and yet at the same time hope filled stories of humanity. He's also created one of the most naturally played movies I've yet seen, with incredibly charged performances from all concerned, and believe me when I say this is not undue praise.
Although I found it emotionally hard and uncomfortable to watch, I feel like I will return again to this film, as should you. This is a movie you cannot and should not fail to see.