The recently released film United 93, which tells the story of the hijacked plane that didn’t reach its target on 9/11, is being hyped as a “gripping, provocative drama” and an account of how Americans found courage on that day. But filmmaker Paul Greengrass can’t seem to decide whether he wants the tale of “the flight that fought back” to be a blockbuster epic or a grittier, documentary-style work of historical fiction. And ultimately, he fails to deliver either.
Watching the trailer for United 93—which suggests an action-packed blockbuster—is a completely different experience from watching the movie itself. In the actual film, September 11, 2001 is portrayed as an ordinary day that unravels into confusion and panic. Neither the passengers of Flight 93 nor the hijackers are mythologized. During the confusion, the humanity of everyone involved is revealed: the stewardesses, the passengers, the military personnel, the hijackers. But as long as the passengers aren’t portrayed as heroes, their struggle feels almost futile—embodied in their final, chaotic rush on the cockpit. In a moment, the violence is over and the plane crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside.
The simultaneous scenes of confusion in the film—in the FAA, in the military, in the flight itself—don’t live up to standard-issue action films. Everything is presented chronologically, but not with enough clarity to answer the question, “Who knew what when?” A history-minded viewer is left to ask, “Is this real? Did this really happen in response to that and at that point in the sequence of events?” And then there’s the scene of white Christians praying in the back of the plane and fanatical brown Muslims praying in the front of the plane—an image hard not to read as intending to portray “the clash of civilizations.”
While Greengrass paints a picture of some of the people involved with the day’s horrific events, viewers seeking entertainment will likely be disappointed and viewers seeking an informative, inspiring, historical narrative will likely be unsettled. Even the host at our screening seemed pressed to find the right words to introduce the movie, “Enjoy the—,” she said, catching herself. “I don’t know if enjoy is the right word.”