I expected the first Hollywood film about 9/11 to be more “Hollywood” – some form of traditional story structure drawing from the event, character arcs, plenty of patriotism. I was very surprised then by “United 93”, which is an extraordinarily low-key film.
It progresses entirely in real time. No “characters” are named. It draws as much from the facts of what happened as possible. It feels more like a dramatisation of facts than any sort of loaded narrative. It avoids any particular politics, focusing instead on the passengers as a collective unit. The terrorists get more characterisation than the passengers, interestingly, with the Ziad Jarrah “character” getting the most to play, in seeming to have internal conflict over the attack.
There are some interesting “parallel” scenes with the terrorists and the passengers. Near the end, the film intercuts between the passengers praying their Christian (Hail Marys and Our Fathers) in desperation, and the terrorists praying their Muslim prayers, looking very stressed themselves. Another parallel is where, early in the film, the terrorists are very hesitant to actually begin the attack, and need constant prodding by one of them to get it moving, and a similar circumstance near the end with the passengers, where they devise a plan to attack the terrorists, but hesitate when it comes to carrying it out, and it takes one man prodding (“let’s roll!”) to get it moving.
The score is never overbearing. The film is pretty cohesively journalistic, in that it never pushes too hard at eliciting certain emotions – it displays events largely as they happened, and leaves the emotion to come from the audience’s reactions. The cinematography is appropriately claustrophobic inside the plane (appropriate use of handheld cameras), and the scenes where the plane dips are done very well – I certainly felt uncomfortable watching them.
The end text cards at the end mar the strengths of the film a bit, as they seem to make some sort of statement about military response times, and frame the film in more typical 9/11 reaction terms. Not bad things, but a bit out of sorts with the impressively singular and journalistic film that came before the cards.
An impressively restrained, low-key film.