Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lewis Alsamari, J.J. Johnson, Trish Gates, Polly Adams, Cheyenne Jackson, Opal Alladin, Starla Benford, Nancy McDoniel, David Alan Basche, Richard Bekins, Susan Blommaert, Ray Charleson, Christian Clemenson, Liza Colón-Zayas
Written by: Paul Greengrass
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
MPAA Rating: R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence (appeal planned)
Running Time: 110
Date: 04/28/2006

United 93 (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Terror Firma

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here's a movie that I didn't want to see, didn't enjoy seeing and wouldn't wish upon anyone else. It left me shaking and sweating. Like a modern-day Battleship Potemkin, it re-creates some of the events of the morning of September 11, 2001, focusing on United Flight 93, which was prevented from reaching its target and crashed into a field. British director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) avoids a single hero to drive the film, choosing instead a collective of Americans, and shies away from casting any easily recognizable actors (thus denying us distractions or comfort).

Using research and interviews with the victims' family members, Greengrass imagines what might have happened on board that flight, specifically the Americans standing up to the terrorists, who here twitch and bark like animals. Greengrass doesn't venture into any unfamiliar territory, like explaining why the terrorists attacked, or wondering where the President was; it's merely a docudrama re-creation of that horrible morning, which none of us is likely to forget anytime soon.

It's an aggravatingly well-made, effective work, but the mere fact that it's a fictional movie feels like exploitation and self-satisfaction, as if Greengrass were very aware that he's doing something "important." I would rather have seen the estimated $15 million spent on this thing go into a monument or a museum.

Note: - For the sake of clarity, I wanted to make a few notes in response to several readers. About the rating system: I have given the movie 2-1/2 stars out of four, which is a mixed review, not a bad review. Unfortunately, Rotten Tomatoes requires reviews to be labeled as either "fresh" or "rotten." Since I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this film, I was assigned a "rotten." (April 28, 2006)

May 5, 2006 - I think I figured out a better way to break this down: Yes, United 93 is a well-made film by any technical standards. Greengrass brings a dignity and intelligence to these portrayals. It's well-shot and crisply edited with a uniquely excellent use of hand-held cameras. But what is the purpose of this film? Is it educational? No. Any American old enough to see the film knows all the facts of this situation, and the rest is all speculation. Is it entertainment? Absolutely not. Is it art? No. The movie never lets on why this particular filmmaker made this particular story. It doesn't have that sense of a burning, personal need to illuminate this subject as only Paul Greengrass can. It feels more like a duty or an obligation, rather than a desire. If this film is to be considered a great work of art, there ought to be something of the artist in it.

So what is its purpose? The only thing I can think of is that it purports to legitimize the heroism of the Americans on that plane. But why do we need a movie to do that? Were they not already heroes long before the film was made? If that's the only purpose of this film, wouldn't the money be just as well spent on a monument? Yes, the cinema has the power to make people seem larger than life and to make violent events seem more exciting. Thus the passengers on the plane are elevated to something more than human, something godlike.

In a weird way, I suppose there's something comforting in that myth, but if it's comfort we're after, why is the movie so excruciating? And we're back to square one. I guess the ultimate purpose is that people are finally ready to face what happened on 9/11, as if they'd been in denial for five years. And this movie offers a safe way to do that, complete with group therapy, catharsis and a badge of honor for having endured something so painful. If there are people who find closure through this film, then more power to them. But if other people are going merely out of a sense of duty or for bragging rights -- or because an important subject automatically makes an important film, no questions asked -- then I still can't recommend United 93.

See also my interview with director Paul Greengrass.

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