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Film review

A gripping, uneasy look back

The drama United 93, telling the story of 9/11's heroes, is so real it hurts, and so well done it impresses.

Published April 27, 2006

[Universal Studios]
Passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 prepare to fight back against the hijackers in the unflinching drama United 93.
It's Your Times: Is it too soon?

Is it too soon for a movie about Sept. 11, 2001?

Is it an offensive idea to dramatize the flight of United 93, one of four airlines hijacked that day by al-Qaida terrorists, and the only one that didn't reach its target after the passengers fought back?

Whether filmmaker Paul Greengrass explores or exploits the terrorist attacks with United 93 has been a subject of debate even before its release. That's understandable.

The film industry has produced so much junk tenuously based on historical events that the public simply doesn't trust Hollywood to make it right or even respectful.

Greengrass makes a convincing case that United 93 is an exception to such irresponsible storytelling, perhaps the only one outside a pure documentary format. He uses exceedingly well-researched conjecture to dramatize what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, carefully restraining from making anyone seem unduly heroic or negligent or even, in the case of the terrorists, cartoonishly evil.

How the writer-director managed it, and the question of its timing, goes beyond the realm of film criticism. A detailed commentary will be published in Friday's Floridian section.

From a purely cinematic angle, United 93 is an impressive piece of work.

Greengrass presents the events nearly in real time, with no room for character development or subplots. Hindsight gives the first act - when passengers are boarding the plane - a wrenching sense of dread; a mundane normalcy reminds us of life before the attacks.

The second act is mostly centered on air traffic controllers slowly realizing the magnitude of what's happening.

The third act, almost entirely aboard Flight 93 as the terrorists and passengers spring into action, is lean, suspenseful filmmaking of the highest order.

Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is superb, relying mostly upon hand-held cameras for a you-are-there approach heightened with expert editing. John Powell's musical score is a key factor in the escalating tension, a melodic pulse racing through the film.

The actors are mostly unrecognizable, a wise decision for Greengrass' facade of authenticity. Some are playing themselves, reliving their fears, underestimations and mistakes of handling that day. The filmmaker doesn't make a wrong move dramatically or, it could be argued, historically, since the families of Flight 93 victims and public records mostly support his version of events.

If this were fiction, Greengrass might be universally hailed as a genius. Since it isn't, he may be scrutinized for mistakes and poor judgment in some quarters and branded as a ghoul in others.

This is the finest film in 13 years as a film critic that I can't wholeheartedly recommend simply because it's too real for sensitive viewers to endure. Those taking that risk will be rewarded with the most powerful film so far in 2006; those who can't will be understood.

Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or

United 93

Grade: A

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Ben Sliney, Patrick St. Esprit, Trish Gates, David Rasche, David Alan Basche, Lewis Alsamari, Omar Berdouni

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass

Rating: R; intense violence, strong profanity, emotionally mature themes

Running time: 111 min.

[Last modified April 27, 2006, 00:13:16]

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