United 93 is a real time account of the events on United Flight 93, which was one of the planes hijacked on September 11 and was to be used in the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. U93 was the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers in the plane tried to subdue the terrorists and fail their plan, saving innocent lives in the process.
Director Paul Greengrass creates a film about the happenings on that plane, using the last cabin recordings and phone calls made from the plane's passengers as his only evidence. Once the pilots have been killed, the passengers realize that this is no ordinary hijacking but something even more sinister. What the passengers did was a courageous and selfless act, and despite best intentions, films like these come under one big question: is this film cashing in on the popular obsession with the events and playing on people's sensibilities, or is it a genuine film meant as tribute?
A worry you might have is that this movie would be in bad taste and would try to glorify the American people in order to get sympathy, and end up becoming a macabre parody of the events. Greengrass makes an almost documentary-like film, eschewing all emotional drama for the real life drama that unfolds. This then becomes a very satisfying movie in the scope of the story it aims to tell and the memorable characters it creates, and not once feels cheap and distasteful.
Much of the strength of the film comes from the director's decision to cast lesser-known actors for the film. This gives the film a more approachable look, and knowingly makes it stay away from the jingoistic fervor of Independence Day. The actors all do a splendid job, and the outstanding performances create a memorable cast of characters that you will remember long after you have stepped out of the theater. Much of the Air Traffic Control staff is played by the employees themselves from real life, and it is amazing to see the range of emotions they show despite not being professional actors.
United 93 begins with the hijackers in their hotel rooms, praying solemnly and preparing themselves for the day. Slowly this leads to passengers and staff trickling on to the plane, the Eastern Command Center kicking into action, and the ATC readying for another day of flights. All of this is strung together by a single narrative, and soon the flight takes off, whence the film starts to effortlessly cut between the events on the ground and the air.
Greengrass deftly creates a balance between the two spaces and that is a big plus, as the film manages to keep you riveted with the FAA's helpless crew struggling to provide a meaningful response and the chaos that ensues on the plane itself. The actions of the day are unfolded as they happened, in real time, and no politics is allowed to seep in the script. Greengrass stays away from humanizing the terrorists or explaining why these things happen. He is not interested in assigning blame on anyone. His business simply is to show the truth about the events that day, and he sticks to it fastidiously.
Especially scary is the time the film spends showing the ground efforts in action. It correctly shows that the men and women there are doing their best to cope with the situation at hand, and they do their work determinedly and work hard to prevent a disaster. But the situation is too big for them to handle, and you see the magnitude of the events take over. The circumstances are way beyond their limited capabilities at the time, and that just scares you when you realize how no one can prepare for such madness.
Deftly-used camera work makes you feel that you are enclosed within the same confines as the characters, and that gives United 63 an eerily frightening feel. The last heroic-yet-fatal act of the passengers is also depicted without any flag-waving, showing the characters as real people till the end, even in their courage.
To answer the question asked in the beginning, this is a tasteful film that fully respects the people and events it is portraying. It is a well-made movie that is tense, scary and yet stays away from all political agenda. It does not exploit the passengers' bravery, but salutes it, and while it may not be accurate in depicting the in-flight moments, it serves as a reminder of their spirit.