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United 93

Telling a story about 9/11 is tricky. For some the events will always be too painful to revisit. For others it is so politically charged that anything that doesn't wave a patriotic flag will be deemed inappropriate. And for others still, it seems a story that can't be told effectively. British filmmaker Paul Greengrass approaches the events of that tragic day with respect and with a desire to capture what that moment in history felt like.

United 93

tries to offer a portrait of the chaos and terror of September 11, 2001. Although the title refers to United Airlines Flight 93, which became the fourth hijacked plane on that day of deadly terrorist attacks on American soil, the film concerns itself with much of what went on during those early morning hours. The result is a story not only of the passengers and crew of United 93 but also of the flight controllers and military that watched in helpless horror and disbelief as the terrorist attack unfolded. While the other three hijacked planes hit their targets'two flew into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon'United 93 crashed in an open field and never reached it supposed target of the White House.

As with Bloody Sunday, United 93 raises questions about how best to revisit a volatile real life event. The answer Greengrass has arrived at is to treat it as if you were making a documentary, and as if the events were unfolding live before your eyes. This insures that scenes won't play out with the portentous weight of history and hindsight bearing down on them.

When I spoke with Paul Greengrass back in 2002 for the premiere of Bloody Sunday at the New York Film Festival, his comments about that film could almost apply to United 93 . He said: 'It's about striking a balance and not loading the dice, and about letting an audience make it's own mind up. It's a movie [ Bloody Sunday ] that's not afraid to be unclear, it's not afraid to portray the chaos of events. It's about striking the balance because the truth is you can have a chaotic event, and yet you can be clear ultimately about what happened. That's the kind of balance I tried to strike. I used to make documentaries and I've been in many places where war and conflicts have broken out. The truth about having a ringside seat to these events is that it very often isn't clear when people start shooting guns and when people start running around screaming. It's not clear but it ultimately becomes clear when you see ordinary people lying on the ground who have been shot.'

Bloody Sunday dealt with a peaceful protest march that turns chaotic and ends in violence as the British Army fires into the crowd. United 93 deals with the chaos that unfolds as a planeload of passengers come to realize that their hijackers have no intention of making demands and landing the plane safely. Instead, they discover that the armed men are likely to crash the plane as part of a suicide mission. The passengers then decide that they must stop the terrorists from accomplishing their mission.

United 93 plays out in near real time, beginning just before takeoff and taking us through the hijacking and to the realization by those onboard that their plane was part of a coordinated terrorist attack. There is no way to know exactly what occurred on that plane, so Greengrass must speculate on events and imagine what could have happened. In order to capture the tension and anarchy aboard that hijacked plane, Greengrass relies on lessons he has learned as a documentary filmmaker.

'I remember being in places like Beirut or El Salvador or the Philippines,' Greengrass said back in 2002, 'places where there were tremendous conflicts and what a camera does in a conflict is become skittish. You very rarely see people shot on camera for one good reason'when guns start going off nobody really knows where the shooting is coming from and no one can predict where the bullets are going to land, and then eventually when the camera settles you see the cost.'

And that's what Greengrass' camera does in United 93 . It darts around as activity heats up. It catches things in the corner of the frame or swings round a moment too late to see exactly how something happened but reveals a body lying on the floor or blood on someone's hands. What Greengrass does, and he should be commended for, is that he makes a film that catches us up in the moment. He strips everything down to a bare minimum, removing politics and sentiment, and just trying to present events as they were unfolding. We feel like we are watching a live report on the news. But the film begins casually with flight attendants chatting about family, passengers conducting last minute business on cell phones in the terminal, pilots go about routine checks of equipment.

Greengrass manages to take us back in time to remind us of a state of innocence America had. People had almost forgotten what hijackings were and nobody could comprehend the magnitude of what was about to happen. It was a moment in time when America and Americans simply could not conceive of something like 9/11 happening. And that's part of the tragedy that Greengrass captures'not just the loss of innocent lives but also a certain loss of innocence.

United 93 for the most part avoids stereotyping the terrorists as wild-eyed zealots. But the middle ground the film tries to strike may still end up offending people. Some Arabs and Muslims may feel that the terrorist characters will prompt more racial profiling and prejudice, while some Americans may feel that the terrorists should be portrayed merely as 'evil doers.' But Greengrass wants to keep his story on a human scale so we have no Evil and no Heroes. We have men who commit a horrendous act of violence in the belief that they are doing it for a cause; and men and women who summon up unexpected courage to try and prevent a greater horror from occurring. We can view what the passengers did as heroic but Greengrass doesn't want to paint them as Heroes who somehow sensed their destiny before the plane even takes off. So you won't find a stirring score punctuating action with patriotic strains of music or emotional swells alerting us to when the important moments are. Instead, Greengrass goes for something more naturalistic and understated. With events as momentous as those that occurred on 9/11, there is no need for a filmmaker to try and sensationalize or inflate what happened to find the drama. Just let events play out and their importance and impact will be all too clear.

Greengrass does create some amazing moments in the film. We see the confusion of air traffic controllers and the military as they try to figure out what's going on, and then it's CNN (with pictures of the smoking World Trade Center) that helps to clarify what's happening. Again, part of the reason for the confusion is that no one seems able to imagine a scenario in which terrorists turn commercial planes into destructive weapons. So as controllers in a tower look to their screens and monitors to try to figure out what one of the hijacked planes is doing, someone simply looks up to see the plane flying into the second tower. That's a chilling image.

United 93 (rated R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence) employs unfamiliar actors in all the roles so that we're not waiting for the Harrison Ford character or Jodie Foster character to leap to action. Everyone seems quite ordinary and that reminds us that the victims were just ordinary people caught in extraordinary events. And some of those people, like the passengers of United 93, played unexpected roles in those events. Paul Greengrass' United 93 respects the memory of those who died and creates an understated film that conveys the deep, scarring tragedy of what occurred.

Be listening to These Days on May 3 for a discussion of the film with host Tom Fudge, KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando and others.

Companion viewing: Bloody Sunday, Paradise Now, The Terrorist (India), Z -----

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