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 ...1