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United 93 - Movie Review

Making a movie, or writing a book based on the events, or the aftermath of September 11 is an act of tightrope walking. The creator has to employ an authentic tone in narrating the events without commercializing the story and exploiting the sentiments of the victims. Talking of stories, there are hundreds of stories associated with 9/11, each dealing with fear, anger, sacrifice, hatred, love and much more. On that fateful day, four flights were overpowered by terrorists, of which three of them reached their targets. United 93 is the story of the fourth flight from Newark bound to SFO, which was wrested back from the control of terrorists by it's brave passengers.

Paul Greengrass, the director, allows the audience to settle down before punching them in the face. For the first half hour, he captures the essence of a busy morning in the airport and a feeling of laziness inside the flight on what seems like a just-another-day which are intercut with scenes from FAA headquarters, NORAD (Aerospace Defense), and air traffic control rooms which begin to feel the heat as a couple of planes go out of communication, deviate from their course and start flying low. At any given point of time, we know what the characters know - nothing more, nothing less. By adopting this approach, the director effectively builds up tension in the foreground and a sense of pathos at a subconscious level because we already know their fate.

A few minutes after take off, the leader of the terrorists eyes the Manhattan skyline, looks at the twin towers and gives a queasy expression wondering why his brothers haven't reached their assigned targets yet. The cameramen and editors add a layer of depth to the acting: when the hijackers are seen in long shots, they just seem to be behaving normally, without inviting any special attention. But, the close-ups effectively reveal their uneasiness and restlessness. A panic of different kind is seen in the faces of NORAD chief and FAA manager; as the two flights take on the World Trade Centers, they scramble for a military intervention and even if they get assistance from fighter jets, they aren't clear about rules of engagement. Only the President can issue a shoot-down, and he is busy thinking about his oil rich friends (see Fahrenheit 9/11*).

<Spoiler>With one of the terrorists threatening the passengers with a bomb tied to his body, a couple of them take control of the cockpit (after killing the pilots) and one keeps vigil. As passengers learn the fate of WTC and Pentagon from their family and friends, it dawns on them that their airplane will also be used as a weapon. Before long, a few men get together and plan an attack with whatever they have - hot water, knives, forks, fire extinguishers, etc. In a pulse-racing scene, the planners just swarm the guy with the bomb, rip him apart and allay the fears of the rest of the passengers that it's a fake bomb. When the terrorist-pilot realizes that they can't make it to their target, he just nose dives the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When passengers storm the cockpit and fight to take control of the flight, it's late and we see a frightening shot of the fast approaching ground view from the cockpit. </Spoiler>

Greengrass, who wrote and directed the movie gets everything right in the acting department. There is no character identification: the audience don't spend more than a few minutes continuously with any of the actors - and all of the actors are either new to screen or not well known. All the actors do a credible job of expressing their anxiety, fear and courage. IMDb says Greengrass put his actors who played terrorists in one hotel and the ones who played the passengers/victims in another hotel to capture the separation and hostility. It's very evident on the screen. In fact, some of the officials seen in the control rooms and military bases were real officers who were on duty on September 11. Barry Ackroyd's camera supports the actors very well. With most of the in-flight shots shot with hand held camera, he creates an immediacy that complements the action.

The editors have done a masterly job of keeping the material lean and low-fat: there's not a weak scene in the movie. The screenplay does not cut back to the control rooms once the flight is taken over by the terrorists: the audience are leashed to the flight until the end of the movie, which I think generates a lot of emotional impact. Had it been otherwise, the power of the film would have been diluted. 9/11 is one of the blackest days of the 21st century, but Greengrass offers hope to the citizens of the world and pays a rich homage to the victims of United 93**. This is close to a masterpiece - there's nothing wrong with this movie and the creators have treaded the tightrope successfully. Few movies have the ability to arrest the senses of their audience and bind them to the story - this movie did it to me.

*There's nothing ground-breaking in Fahrenheit 9/11. But for the uninitiated, it's a good place to understand George W Bush and his oil tycoon friends.
**$1.15M was contributed by the movie's earnings towards the memorial at Shanksville, where the flight crashed.

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