After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood enlisted wholeheartedly in the war effort. Naturally Hollywood wanted to make movies that showed Americans winning on the battlefield, but in the opening months of the fighting the war news was mostly bad. This led to a subgenre of movies known as “last stand” movies, of which Wake Island, made in 1942, is a typical example. These showed Americans fighting to the last, especially at Bataan and Wake Island. Although these movies were about grim defeats, they were never defeatist in outlook. The audience was always left with the impression that the battle, however badly it had ended, had been fought for necessary reasons in a good cause, and that there would be another day. And Americans were never shown surrendering.
United 93, which deserves the Oscar for best picture of 2006, is in some ways reminiscent of those long ago last stand movies. But there are important differences. Hollywood, in 1942, used pretty much standard cinematic music, dialog, cinematography, and dramatic structure. In United 93, British director Paul Greengrass employs a documentary style that uses realistic dialog, natural, unaffected performances, almost no musical score, and handheld cameras. There are no well known actors in the movie, and Greengrass was careful to cast people who, though often deeply talented, lack the kind of phony glamour that would distance the audience from the story he’s trying to tell. In addition, the story takes place almost entirely in real time.
The result is gripping, intense, and utterly convincing. Greengrass, who wrote the screenplay, used the known facts about what happened to Flight 93, but these are, of course, incomplete. Greengrass has had to fictionalize parts of the story. The results, unlike a lot of Hollywood dramatic license, work brilliantly because they depend on believable human reactions. The people aboard Flight 93 fought back, but Greengrass puts no Rambos among them. The shock, terror, and bewilderment of the passengers gives way slowly to anger, desperation, and cold determination as they slowly realize that they are to be sacrificed by the hijackers. The almost choking, pitch perfect atmosphere of fear aboard the plane is heightened by the fact that Greengrass knows when to draw back from explicitly showing the bloody, sadistic, furious violence done by the hijackers. As the passengers prepare to storm the cockpit and call their loved ones to say goodbye, the viewer may find himself wondering if he could have shown the same sort of courage and grit. The payoff for all of this is that even though we all know how it turned out, there is an element of almost unbearable suspense to the final minutes of the film; a feeling that maybe, just maybe, the doomed passengers might somehow pull it off.
Greengrass isn’t selling a pot of message in this movie, but he does make some important points. First, he captures perfectly the fog of war. The first hour of this movie follows the unfolding drama of 9-11 as it was seen from control towers, FAA operations centers, and military command posts. The confusion, chaos, and inability to grasp, at first, the enormity of the 9-11 plot are carefully researched and brilliantly depicted. It is hard to remember now, five years later, that the whole course of the tragedy played out in the time it takes to watch a feature film. There was very little time for the people involved to react to, or even understand, what was happening.
Second, Greengrass makes it clear that the hijackers were acting out of religious motivations. Greengrass never seeks to make any sort of statement condemning Islam, or all Muslims, but he does not flinch from the fact that the 9-11 hijackers considered themselves to be on a literal mission from God. A scene of the hijackers in the cockpit praying to their God while the terrified passengers pray to theirs is electrifying. The viewer feels, for a moment, that he is witnessing the opening battle of a Holy War.
Movies are often described as being “important”. This almost always verbal flatulence. Movies, after all, are only movies. But perhaps United 93 is really more important than most. To date, no proper memorial to Flight 93 has been built, and building one seems to be taking an unreasonable length of time. This moving and magnificent film is not in itself a sufficient tribute to the heroic passengers and crew of United Flight 93. But until something more definitive is finally built at the Shankstown Pennsylvania crash site, it’s the best thing we have.