Taut, visceral and predictably gut-wrenching, “United 93,” Paul Greengrass’ already much-debated look at Sept. 11, trades in some emotional impact for authenticity, capturing the overwhelming sense of chaos surrounding that day’s harrowing events. The result is a tense, documentary-style drama that methodically builds a sense of dread despite the preordained outcome. While media attention has focused on reaction to the movie’s trailer, strong ratings for earlier Flight 93 TV projects suggest there will be considerable curiosity, morbid or otherwise, about “United 93” that should translate into robust box office.
Indeed, a certain myopia seems to have overtaken those wringing hands over the “Is it too soon?” question. A&E’s “Flight 93,” a restrained and impressive achievement on a made-for-TV movie budget, and Discovery Channel’s docudrama “The Flight That Fought Back” were major successes for those cable networks.
Inevitably, seeing the same events on a theatrical canvas provides an additional wallop, though writer-director Greengrass’ approach — from the jittery camera to the dozen or so aviation and military personnel who play themselves — feels more determined to create a “You are there” sensation than to send the audience sobbing into the night. By contrast, a key element of both “Flight 93” and “The Flight That Fought Back,” which employed chilling snippets of real audio, depicted friends and relatives of the doomed passengers on the ground, a nuance this telling fastidiously avoids.
Unfolding in real time once the plane is airborne for its 91-minute flight, “United 93” opens with the terrorists rising for morning prayer and blase passengers and crew engaging in mundane chit-chat that suggests just another ordinary day.
Oscillating between the plane’s occupants, military personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) and air traffic controllers in New York and Boston, Greengrass (whose credits include “Bloody Sunday”) uses a hyper-natural style, chronicling the gradual dawning that the country was facing an unprecedented attack.
The controllers, in fact, at first can barely grasp that a hijacking is in progress, musing it must have been 20 years since the last one. In perhaps the starkest moment, they sit in stunned silence, mouths agape, when the second commandeered jet crashes into the World Trade Center, while an officer at NEADS bellows about being unable to defend the entire eastern seaboard with only four fighter planes.
To pound home the accuracy Greengrass sought, those participating as themselves include Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Administration’s national operations manager, an adviser on the film who, remarkably, started in that job on Sept. 11; and NEADS Maj. James Fox.
It’s roughly an hour into the film before the hijackers brutally leap into action, slaying the pilots and a random passenger. Initially terrified, the other passengers confer with loved ones on the ground via cell and air phones, with Thomas E. Burnett (Christian Clemenson) the first to recognize that their flight is another suicide mission and they must band together to retake the plane.
From the beginning, there has been something tragic and uplifting about Flight 93, the one plane that failed to strike its intended target thanks to the passengers’ heroic stand. In that sense, the story became a symbol easily elevated to near-mythical status through facile catchphrases (“Let’s roll”) and newsmagazines eager to interview surviving relatives.
Greengrass, however, intently delivers a raw, unadorned view, letting the story’s inherent drama speak for itself. That much of the cast is unidentifiable only adds to the reality he is determined to unflinchingly convey.
Even with its copious research, the film departs from prior accounts in several subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reminding us (as does a closing disclaimer) that this re-creation is just that — based on the best available evidence, with inferences and composites constructed for dramatic effect.
Those qualifications aside, “United 93” is technically razor-sharp, from the editing and sound to John Powell’s urgent but not intrusive score. Nor is the film’s violence any more or less graphic than it needs to be, though something is lost in the one-sided exchanges with loved ones, as passengers come to grips with their likely fate and bid them farewell.
As for that aforementioned closing scroll, “United 93” carries a dedication to those slain on Sept. 11 and a note that the movie was in no way sponsored by United Airlines. Consider it a tribute to the film that each of those postscripts couldn’t possibly feel more redundant.