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Retrospective Film Review: Paul Greengrass’ United 93.

Sunday 14 September 2014

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Words Lizzie

One remembers thinking in the days that followed the September 11th attacks that this was surely going to have a long-lasting and critical impact on Hollywood. In recent years the images of the planes striking the towers have been covered from every conceivable angle and format on YouTube, the moment of impact itself extraordinarily terrifying in the way the clips’ muted sound and static angles highlight the reality of what we are seeing; there is no sound design, there is no dramatic score, there is no sense of storyboarding, just events unfolding in real time. It is undoubtedly the single most terrifying event of my generation. How could terrorists, planes, airports, muslims, explosions, guns, fights, fire, destruction and carnage ever be depicted in movies again?

And yet comparatively soon, with time, objectivity and reasoning, the War On Terror begun, the world got back up on its feet, Bin Laden was hunted and eventually killed, and, certainly cinematically, one could argue it’s business as usual. What we are left with is arguably an even more fertile ground for movie narrative and exposition than before; paranoia is heightened, everyone and everything is a potential threat. Historically of course, this is nothing new. Wars have passed, atrocities uncovered, dictators overthrown, and we have gone on to tell stories about all these things. We look on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an educational tool rather than a cynical attempt to cash in on the unspeakable.

What then to say about Paul Greengrass’s film? Made a mere five years after the attacks, it sensitively attempts to dramatically portray two of the major events on that day; the confusion between the various air traffic controls and the military in the face of the unprecedented unfolding events, and the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 and their efforts to overcome the hijackers and storm the aircraft’s cockpit. The main action, shot at Pinewood in a disused Boeing 747, conveys a heart-stopping sense of claustrophobia as the passengers, filmed in blurry hand-held close-up, gradually realise their part in the day and decide to fight back. Greengrass eases off for the most part on the overly-dramatic, but there is an unnecessary score from the talented John Powell that pops up from time to time, which really has no place in a film like this. Notably, the terrorists themselves are depicted, as well as devout followers of their religious beliefs and cause, as human beings, fearful, nervous and somewhat under-rehearsed. That time is given to portray them as people rather than faceless spiritual mercenaries provides much of the film’s resonance. Ultimately, one concludes that like Spielberg’s film, this too is an instructive watch. It demonstrates how unprepared we are until faced with the unimaginable. It shows the complacency in believing we are protected from those who wish to hurt us, and it shows the real courage and strength it takes to face real-world terror outside our lives – or indeed the cinema.

Words: Ash Verjee