UNITED They Stood

Box office reports are the highly inaccurate, but thoroughly scrutinized report card of a film’s quality. By now, it’s been shoved down our throats…Hollywood is a business first. Why bother to teach, illuminate and inspire change if there isn’t a profit to be had?
Now, like street vendors selling rubble from ground zero, Hollywood is financing movies centered on September 11th. Everyone is shouting “too soon”, but after seeing Writer/Director Paul Greengrass’ UNITED 93, I say now is exactly the right time...if you go about it the right way. This is one of the most thoughtful, respectful and honorable films Hollywood has ever released. Seeing it in a theatre, with an audience, is one of the more quietly riveting/draining experiences you’re likely to have.
Greengrass made smart key decisions right at the outset. There are no recognizable actors. (Most air traffic controllers play themselves.) The camerawork is hand-held, documentary style. That may bother some people as images are bumped, crowded and occasionally lose focus. It usually bothers me (especially in Greengrass’ previous THE BOURNE SUPREMECY). Not so much here.
Everything feels like a CNN report coming at you live. With the controllers, or in the plane, everything feels unrehearsed. It was like reliving the events with the insight to be in all the key places. I now feel like I have a better understanding of how things unfolded, and a few questions as to where things sometimes broke down. (Most errors were just people doing their best in highly stressful conditions.)

While feeling totally spontaneous, Greengrass also shows precise skill as a filmmaker. He modulates the tension perfectly, building to crescendos like a master conductor. There are key small touches, like the human face placed on the terrorists, an amazing shot of the plane at take-off, and the low-key but anxious score by John Powell.
One thing irks me, although I can’t quite fault the film. For about an hour, UNITED 93 cuts between locations as the first two planes hit the Towers. After that, focus stays solely on United Flight 93. Until this point, the film is so relentlessly emotional – exciting and grueling in equal measure – I started feeling a little wrung out. I liked cutting between the different groups, but I understand the decision to stay with the human story. The final minutes would have lost much of their effectiveness if the film had cut away.

When UNITED 93 is playing in your local theatre, I implore you not to look at it as Hollywood getting rich off of tragedy. (The film’s budget is $15 million, and most of the money came from England.) This is a truly exceptional case where someone saw an incredible story to tell, and a filmmaker who knew exactly the right way to tell it.
If you feel it’s too soon to watch a 9/11 movie, go with someone who shares your opinion. I think the courage displayed by the people of UNITED 93, who were in the thick of it, may actually bring comfort to a moment of great tragedy. This is the opposite of a “feel good” movie, and yet, when the lights came up and I left the theatre…that’s exactly how I felt.


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