It is all too easy to imagine the ways in which the first major film about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could have gone wrong. On the one hand, it could have served as wartime propaganda, using the horrific events of that day to paint a mythic portrait of incipient heroism, full of stirring music and bold close-ups on the passengers as they rise to their feet with a cry of "Let's roll!" On the other hand, it could have bent over backward to give the story nuance, putting words in the terrorists' mouths designed to keep their hostages forever in doubt about the rightness of their decision to fight back, a la Steven Spielberg's Munich. But thankfully, United 93—which chronicles the hijacked flight that ultimately crashed into a Pennsylvania field, instead of its intended target in Washington, D.C.—avoids both of these approaches.
Instead of anything so nakedly artificial, writer-director Paul Greengrass presents the events of that morning with a straightforward, matter-of-fact naturalism, as though he simply happened to have cameras in all the right places when the hijackings took place, catching the events as they unfolded. As with his earlier film Bloody Sunday, which concerned a Northern Irish civil-rights march that was attacked by British troops in 1972, he relies on hand-held cinematography and a cast made up mostly of unknowns to make his reconstruction of an historical event as realistic and documentary-like as possible.
The effect is to let the viewer draw his or her own conclusion from these events. But this is not to say that the film never steers our emotions, or our sympathies. Even though we know how the story will end, we do not know quite how it will get there, and Greengrass builds a fair bit of tension through careful edits and an ominous score, the latter courtesy of John Powell. As passengers and crew prepare for their flight, we see someone refuel the plane, and the word "flammable" is briefly, prominently displayed in the frame; normally, this might be an innocent detail, but in this story, we know exactly what it portends.
The film also creates tension by introducing new "facts" that might not have occurred to us before. In one scene, the air traffic controllers can only watch helplessly as one of the hijacked planes, having deviated from its original course, seems to be on an unintentional collision course with another plane. And when the passengers aboard Flight 93 band together to fight back against the terrorists, they check first to see if any of them have the experience necessary to land the plane safely once they have taken it back; we know that they will never get the chance to do so, but for a moment, we hope that they might.
Perhaps most significantly, and daringly, the film creates tension by putting the terrorists at the center of the movie and allowing us to identify with them, sort of. They, after all, are the only ones who know what's coming, just as we who watch the movie know what's coming. As Flight 93 takes off from Newark, New Jersey, the terrorists look out the window at the World Trade Center towers in the distance, and unlike every other passenger on that plane, they know exactly what is going to happen to those buildings within the next half-hour—two other hijacked airliners will crash into the buildings, ultimately leveling them both and killing some 3,000 people.