Resolutely un-Hollywood, Paul Greengrass’ much-discussed docudrama United 93 has been praised more for what it’s not — cheesy, manipulative, plastic — than for what it is. Structurally, I can’t see much wrong with it: Greengrass handles the story with a productive mix of gravity and stylistic off-handedness. The importance of the event is never oversold; nobody is lionized or demonized. But therein lies the problem: as drama, it inevitably flatlines. Shackled to the (few) known facts tighter than any other filmmaker in recent memory, Greengrass can’t elaborate, can’t imagine. After a while, the movie’s free-floating sense of dread shifts into neutral, and the incidents seem to unfold at an emotional remove. The film seems transcribed, not told or felt.
That said, what Greengrass does, he does superbly. The director of Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy works with his usual shaky-cam verisimilitude, his camera catching significant action and dialogue out of the corner of its eye. We witness the confusion of September 11 — the air-traffic controllers baffled by planes that have disappeared below the radar; the military scrambling for authorization to shoot down the planes; the disbelief that first one, then another, then four (the number isn’t clear at first) planes have been hijacked, when there hasn’t been an American hijacking in years; the sight of that second plane hitting the World Trade Center, demonstrating beyond a doubt that this was no accident. The madness of that day, including all the conflicting and false stories, is evoked with a casual chill.
Aboard United Flight 93, which was presumably headed for the Capitol, four men sit and wait. One is calm, presentable, bespectacled — he could be a professor of Middle Eastern studies. The others are younger, and more nervous, almost crawling out of their skin to do this terrible deed. Not out of animal hatred, though — it’s more like the fearful impatience that drives you to leave a little early for a dentist’s appointment you’re dreading. Greengrass depicts these men as men — not monsters — who, for whatever reasons, have come to a mental space wherein striking at the political and economic hearts of America seems a fine and noble goal. Depicting them as the standard Hollywood bug-eyed bearded screechers would help no one and illuminate nothing.
Once blood is shed on the plane and the hijackers take over, United 93 lapses, unavoidably, into convention — the screaming, terrified passengers; the hijackers shouting incomprehensibly and keeping everyone at bay with box-cutters and a fake bomb. We’ve seen it before, though usually handled less scrupulously. Some of the passengers cluster together, making calls from the plane phones or figuring out what to do (once they’ve learned that the hijackers have no intention of landing the plane, much less making any demands). Greengrass has avoided casting any stars — in some cases (as with FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who gave the order to ground all aircraft) he has cast real-life figures from that day as themselves — but a few semi-recognizable character actors, like Boston Legal‘s Christian Clemenson and Sledge Hammer‘s David Rasche, stick out a bit and disrupt the illusion.
I can say that United 93 has been done well — with intelligence, compassion, efficiency — and yet still question whether it was worth doing. In form it’s little different from a television docudrama, and you don’t take anything away from it that you wouldn’t get from an actual documentary (there have been at least two) or from reading a book. As noted, Greengrass has very little wriggle room to interpret the events artistically or even emotionally. He does everything the opposite of how the worst Hollywoodized account of Flight 93 you could imagine would do it, but I think he overcorrects in the other direction. I prefer a film like 11’09″01, an anthology in which eleven directors from different countries were asked to make a short film (lasting exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame) in response to 9/11. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but all were highly personal in a way that honored the multitude of feelings about that horrid day. United 93 isn’t personal — it’s just business. It’s all business, tending monkishly to data and jargon and physical detail, as if so afraid of offending left-wingers, right-wingers, the many people who were involved in air-traffic control, the many survivors of those aboard Flight 93, and God knows who else, that it can barely breathe.