Movie Review: Paul Greengrass's United 93: Guts

June 24, 2006
Alan Dale

United 93

United 93 recreates the flight of the fourth plane on September 11, 2001, the one on which the passengers got word by cell phone of the attacks on the World Trade Center, figured out the hijackers were on a suicide mission, and attempted to retake control of the plane. The movie was clearly made to dramatize our fascination with the fate of the unsuspecting people on the plane, those resourceful anybodies whose actions, in this version, saved the U.S. Capitol--What would we have done in their place? Would we have had their nerve?

The English writer-director Paul Greengrass allows for this projection, but doesn't hype it. He divides the story into three movements: the air traffic controllers figuring out that something is up, though they don't know what; the jihadists' attack; and the passengers' and crew's counterattack. We always feel we're present because Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot everything with handheld cameras, but at the same time this makes every situation feel roughly equivalent. The camerawork functions like an even coat of opaque paint.

The terrorists aren't fully characterized, but neither is anyone else. (The pilots and stewardesses are played by actual pilots and stewardesses, and among the actors playing passengers I recognized a few names but no faces.) Even the famous line with which the passengers launched their offensive--"Let's roll!"--isn't isolated and framed in the usual movie-ish way. Our immersion in the situation is total, which also means our perspective is less limited but also less intense than it would have been if we had actually been on board.

Of course we know from the start who the terrorists are and what they're up to, and so they affect us in a more conventionally suspenseful way. (When they delay making their move on the plane you may find yourself idiotically hoping that they won't.) Even when the terrorists and passengers appear in the same shot, waiting for the flight to be called, for instance, the terrorists seem to be in a different, more focused movie, while the passengers chat on their cell phones or peck at their laptops.

The scenes set among the air traffic controllers are altogether more interesting. The controllers are tool-edge sharp, picking up and deciphering the slightest hints over their headsets, and they're effective to the extent possible against a sneak attack. (The only snafu is the military response, but in the case of flight 93 what could the air force have accomplished that the passengers and crew didn't--downing the plane on uninhabited ground.) But it's a relief that Greengrass avoids turning the controllers' alertness into romance by focusing on heroes battling against the forces of evil and incomprehension. It's nice for a change that a major event is not being processed into the same old crud that our moviemakers have always passed off as historical filmmaking.

I do wish, however, that Greengrass had shaped the story more. The movie has structure only on the outside, not on the inside, which surely is a definition of "hollow." In this partial transcript of an April 2006 interview with Rush Limbaugh, Greengrass suggests an idea: "that group of ordinary men and women actually were the first amongst us to enter the post-9/11 world." But we don't know what these men and women were like before the hijacking so we don't see how they change. He also justifies making the movie so soon after the events by saying, "It's time we went together back to this experience, because we may find that we agree about more than we think at the moment." He's referring to the political divisions that have become so pronounced since September 11th and hoping we can become as "united" in our response as the people on flight 93 (not that we know what differences, if any, they overcame in the desperation of events). But again, nothing in the movie dramatizes this aspiration.

Without an organizing dramatic idea, the episodic back-and-forth between plane and tower helplessly makes United 93 resemble a much more conventional disaster movie, a restrained, less campily characterful version of Airport (1970), one charged with political emotion. For American audiences, however, that political emotion inevitably comes with the subject; it's not an attainment of the movie's. And though the three groups of characters are viewed somewhat differently, they're filmed in a unified style that gets a bit monotonous. Those soap opera dummies in Airport at least add a little variety, even to derision. United 93's version of the doomed flight finally isn't very different from the gray, panic-stricken version that runs in my head.

By comparison, the subject matter of Greengrass's hellaciously swift international spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy (2004) is entirely forgettable. Its generic paranoia about government intelligence ops doesn't relate to life as we know it in any way. Nonetheless, Greengrass presents it as urgent, which is laughabale, but at the same time the crappy plot enforces on him variations in handling and rhythm that he would do well to carry over into his more respectable work. (He also gained from working with skillful high-profile actors, particularly Joan Allen and Julia Stiles.)

Though far more discreetly handled, United 93 gives off the same feeling as a World War II picture involving civilians, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), for instance, in which the non-combatant survivors of a torpedoed ship share a lifeboat with the captain of the U-boat that sank them. At the climax, the democratic civilians finally realize the Nazi is up to no good and do away with him with their bare hands. Lifeboat is cruder than United 93, in no small part because the situation has been faked to provide some low-down high-comic material for Tallulah Bankhead, which turns its ideological demonstration into something resembling entertainment. But the demonstration also makes Lifeboat more sententious, and by that same stroke less visceral, than United 93.

Sidebar: Lifeboat affords the best opportunity on film to see the Bankhead legend, apart from bits and pieces in such pictures as Faithless (1932), which does provide her with a classic exit line. Having been thrown out of a house party by the social climbing Mrs. Blainey, Bankhead's Carol, a fallen heiress, is stopped by the woman's husband, who tells her that his wife isn't "sore" at her, she's just afraid of the "high-class competition." Carol laughs dismissively at this--she can't entirely share the joke because he couldn't possibly know how far she's fallen--and, waving the handbag he's fattened with $1,000, says with self-consciously trampy gallantry as she departs, "Oh! Reassure her, Mr. Blainey, reassure her!"

Greengrass is a refined political artist, but United 93 goes pretty much entirely for gut reactions. He doesn't exploit them; he doesn't need to. I became aware of this when the passengers are planning their counterattack and one of them proposes to break the arm of the terrorist who appears to be holding the detonator of a bomb strapped around his waist. The passenger doesn't say it with relish, and Greengrass doesn't emphasize it particularly, but my response was, Yeah, break his fucking arm!

These throbbing of vengeance strike me as inevitable, even for civilized people. There's a point at which the only possible response to fascistic force is a greater counterforce, and such a counterforce requires an emotional thrust that can't be very fine-grained. I'm okay with the coarse emotion generated here, but I don't need a movie, or any ritual, to generate it for me. Greengrass's superior technical skill doesn't add much to the subject matter, as opposed to the experience in the theater, and it's not always that superior. In the one strand of allegory, for instance, a lone European passenger wants to appease the terrorists; when the Americans are about to act he tries to single himself out from them. This is reminiscent of the passenger in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) who hops off the stopped train waving a white flag; the fascists do to him what fascists do to appeasers. I believe the point is valid, in both cases, but nonetheless so crude in the performance as to appear silly.

Bloody Sunday

Greengrass's breakthrough feature Bloody Sunday (2002) uses a similar constant-present-tense technique to recreate another historic convergence of forces, on 30 January 1972 when British troops fired on unarmed Catholic civil-rights protestors in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 13 and setting off the bloodiest year of the "Troubles."

Greengrass and his cinematographer Ivan Strasburg shoot as if it were all happening before us, and the confusion of the leaders of the march, including Ivan Cooper, MP (James Nesbitt) and Bernadette Devlin (Mary Moulds), after the troops have replaced rubber bullets with lead and started picking people off is vividly realized. Because the cinematography lacks the usual finish and polish, you may feel an almost unmediated horror, as if the theater had dissolved and you were there, unprotected, in the street.

Perhaps because Bloody Sunday is so rooted in place, it feels even more teeming than United 93, in which all the relationships are transient. Greengrass shows us five elements: Cooper, a grassroots politician, and his organization working to keep the IRA and the unorganized, disgruntled youths from disrupting the peaceful protest; the British military leader who wants a muscular show of force that will function both as payback for past attacks on British soldiers and as a deterrent against future attacks; a local policeman who works with a sympathetic British officer to keep a check on this show of force; edgy, angry British soldiers who are spoiling for blood and who pressure a more restrained comrade to go along with them; and a young Catholic lad with a Protestant girlfriend who joins his rock-throwing mates and draws fire.

All the same, there's more of a point to Bloody Sunday than to United 93, which aims simply to depict for us our own fearful imaginings. And the point is pretty much unifaceted: at a press conference after the massacre, a shaken Cooper tells the British authorities that they have destroyed the non-violent movement and done more effective recruiting for the IRA than the IRA could ever have done on its own. Greengrass goes on to make clear that the British military planned the attack as a demonstration, planted nail bombs on a corpse, and consistently lied about their actions to Lord Widgery's Tribunal, which investigated the incident and published its Report in 1972. But though Greengrass is angry, he's not seething. His live-action visual technique and editing have a paradoxical sense of containment: "anything" could happen, provided it fits the plan.

It should also be said that the points Greengrass makes in Bloody Sunday are not controversial and so his treatment doesn't need to be polemical. (Compare, for instance, David McKittrick and David McVea's chapter "The End of Stormont, 1972-73," from Making Sense of the Troubles (2000): "What happened on that day was to drive even more men and youths into paramilitary groups.") Even though there may be reason to despair of the situation in Northern Ireland, as this 21 August 2005 New Republic article by Ron DePasquale suggests, that's a different question from what happened in Derry three decades ago. (A second commission of inquiry was established in 1998, though it seems not to have published its findings yet.) By temperament Greengrass seeks to form consensus not to rouse the rabble; I don't believe he intended to make an incendiary point, as Gillo Pontecorvo did with The Battle of Algiers (1966), and as he might have done had he made Bloody Sunday 30 years earlier. (Or even 20 years earlier, at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike in which Bobby Sands and nine other male prisoners died.)

Greengrass's thesis and approach may not be polemical or controversial but they are melodramatic, because he doesn't examine the Irish hooliganism (or the IRA terrorism, which since the 1960s killed about 1,800 people, including 650 civilians) as he does the British military bellicosity. This is so, even though Ivan Cooper is the movie's hero because he espouses the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Greengrass, who made a British TV movie about the 15 August 1998 "Real" IRA bombing in Omagh, has never expressed anything but dismay over political violence.

From an impartial overview, however, the Northern Irish boys throwing brickbats and rocks at the British soldiers must bear some of the responsibility for the outcome that Cooper, because of the unjustified and unprincipled use of lethal force by the British, places squarely on the British. And the British are the only ones who lie about the events. In United 93 Greengrass doesn't suggest that the Islamofascist terrorists have a "side" in the conflict; he comes close to suggesting as much with respect to the IRA (though not nearly as much as Steven Spielberg does with the Palestinian terrorists in the mindless Munich). But having a valid grievance does not justify all responses, even if it explains them.

In addition, Greengrass's handling is melodramatic because we're privy to all the relevant information beforehand. Part of "being there" is not hearing or seeing everything squarely, but Greengrass keeps us informed of everything we need to know--even if only with glimpses of action and snatches of conversation--to be able to agree with him, but no more.

Yet oddly Greengrass doesn't focus his melodrama emotionally. In this interview with IndieLondon, Greengrass says that his early background was with the Granada Television news program World in Action and that seems to be his grounding in filmmaking. But I've seen greater characterization in documentaries; in Bloody Sunday (as in United 93) everyone remains equally removed from us, so that although we recognize conceptually that bad acts have occurred they don't have the kind of wallop you'd expect from a movie.

Bloody Sunday demonstrates an historical thesis formulated in retrospect, which fits oddly with Greengrass's continuous-present technique. It would thus be a mistake not to separate Greengrass's naturalistic technique from his content. The technique is supposed to be immediate, as if the crew weren't there. My boyfriend and I experienced a moment of confusion that I thought was telling: in one long shot he pointed out that people had come out to watch from the balconies of an apartment building in the background. I thought he meant that they were extras directed to watch the "violence"; he actually meant they were locals who lived in the building and who had come out to watch the filming. Greengrass works in such a way that this ambiguity helps him, if anything. If you can't distinguish his players from "real" people, then he's succeeded. But for all that, Bloody Sunday is blandly tendentious in a way United 93 is not.

I believe Greengrass is thoroughly acquainted with the facts in Bloody Sunday but I still felt starved if not for information then for an analytical model. On the other hand, this puts Bloody Sunday in the league of Costa-Gavras's Z (1969), another streamlined jolt of then-recent political history. Z has a more varied style than Bloody Sunday, but there's nothing casual about it. Its view of history is locked and loaded and aimed point blank at your face. By contrast, Bloody Sunday includes one brief sequence of impressive offhand mastery, in which Ivan Cooper and his girlfriend try to carry on a tense personal discussion at headquarters while constantly getting interrupted by other people and phone calls. (And remember, Costa-Gavras had no qualms about making one of his villains a psychotic homo.)

Greengrass finds his groove in the middle of turbulence, but he needs to hop out before his groove becomes a rut. His work in Bloody Sunday and United 93 is impressive but finally too flashy and pointed, and yet unstructured, to have the tragic dimension they sorely need. In the scenes dealing with the air traffic controllers in United 93 you become aware of how large the skies are when the terrorists turn off the airplanes' transponders and the big birds disappear from the radar. (It takes the controllers a while to realize that the missing American Airlines flight 11 must have gone into the smoking hole in the World Trade Center's north tower.) In United 93 the action takes place in the skies, but that's all the action going on in them. There's certainly no mystery on the other side of them. The events are no more freed from the flow of historic time for contemplation, or sorrow, or consolation than in an action movie. There's just shock, relived, like a nightmare duped onto a replayable cartridge.

Alan Dale earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He currently works as a corporate tax attorney in Washington, D.C. He is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.
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June 24, 2006
04:30 PM



but after 2769 words ... like a nightmare duped onto a replayable cartridge. was a repeat of what you had said in the beginning of the sixth paragraph ..The movie has structure only on the outside, not on the inside, which surely is a definition of "hollow."

digression ( or sidebar as you say):

a tad disappointed in that i was expecting wolfgang petersen's das boot to figure in mirroring opinion...(hitchock was ok)... not the anti-war message of das boot but comparison in story treatment, screenplay, editing, cinematography, sound and sound treatment as illusion for what is happening on the periphery...

June 26, 2006
12:24 AM

I'm glad you reviewed the film, which I saw recently. It did evoke strong emotions, but so does an onion, and there's not much inside an onion.

Alan Dale
June 26, 2006
10:57 AM

Thanks, Aaman. At least inside an onion there's more onion. Inside United 93 are emotions that I brought into the theater with me. The movie is the equivalent of a potluck restaurant. It just isn't a movie I need, and if you don't need it, it hasn't been made in such a way that it has independent aesthetic value. Bloody Sunday is better, but I still don't feel that Greengrass's great talent has come into focus yet.

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