"UNITED 93" FLICK HOMAGE

"United 93" doesn’t feel so much like a movie as it does an event.

Perhaps this is a film that only an outsider could have made, and that's why British Writer/Director Paul Greengrass was the perfect choice for this sensitive material. The director best known for the action packed Bourne films returns to his "Sunday Bloody Sunday" roots to create one of the most stirring and intense moving going experiences of the year. IMHO, the first great film of 2006.

It wouldn’t have been hard for the filmmakers to make bad decisions: use Hollywood stars, over dramatize. Surprisingly, these filmmakers show a great deal of discipline, detail, apparent accuracy, and a point blank, gritty-truth almost-documentary style.

"United 93" isn't entertaining in any conventional sense, any more than being asked to relive your worst nightmare would be. Its utterly realistic style and unflinching re-creation of the world's most tragic morning combine for 110 minutes of nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat dread. It's also a respectful, carefully constructed (and, at times, conjectured) tribute to the thousands of innocent people who lost their lives on 9/11, particularly the 40 courageous passengers on doomed Flight 93.

Greengrass notes that these were the only passengers and crew members on any of those ill-fated flights who knew about the other planes having been used as weapons and realized what was happening to them. "They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world," Greengrass says. These were the first to react to the worldwide conflict we find ourselves in today. Within the microcosm of that reaction, Greengrass has made an emphatic political document, a movie about defiance against tyranny and terrorism.

What makes United 93 so dramatic is that the take-off was delayed by 30 minutes giving the passengers what other terrorist targets do not have: a countdown to what will happen to them. The film, which plays out more or less in real time, is essentially divided into two parts. The first focuses on the ground management of that morning's ghastly events, jumping from various air traffic control centers, to upstate New York's Northeast Air Defense Sector, to FAA headquarters in Virginia (where real-life national operations manager Ben Sliney portrays himself as well—if not better—than any actor). The prevailing sentiment of these vérité, piano wire-taut scenes is how unprepared authorities were for such an unprecedented attack. After all, as it's eerily noted, there hadn't been a plane hijacking in some 20 years.

The movie then shifts entirely to the takeover of United flight 93 and the terrified passengers' audacious response. The four Muslim terrorists, who chillingly and repeatedly justify their heinous actions in the name of "Allah," are shown as being organized and fanatical, yet less assured than one might've imagined. Acted by a quartet of grippingly authentic unknowns, who we get to know just slightly better than any of the plane's innocent travelers, these are the ultimate movie bad guys. The passengers, played by a gallery of barely familiar faces, are the ones who become truly mobilized as they make a last-ditch effort to overpower their attackers, take charge of the hellbound plane, and save each others' lives. The last 20 minutes of the film, devoted exclusively to this desperate, heroic mayhem, contains some of the most harrowing movie moments ever. It's tough to watch, but harder to look away from, due in no small part to Barry Ackroyd's extraordinary, "you-are-there" cinematography.

I’m left wondering how the film will impact the world politically. It would’ve definitely been interesting to see the impact if it’d been released during the 2004 Presidential election. Greengrass doesn’t sentimentalize or lay blame, though the government’s complete failure to do anything substantial immediately after the Twin Towers stands out glaringly.

The film does make fleeting but pointed reference to the military's inability to reach even the vice-president to trigger the "rules of engagement" and authorize shooting down the imperiled aircraft—not an indictment, just the facts. That's Greengrass' approach throughout; he's never heavy-handed and rarely pushes any emotional buttons that haven't been repeatedly pushed over the last five years. In fact, the passengers' heartbreaking "air phone" calls home to loved ones are about as manipulative as this movie gets, which is to say, not at all.stands out in the story.

On the whole, the film is acted, directed and shot just about the best it could have been. The film is respectful of those brave passengers who stood up and fought in order to save the lives of so many others on the ground. To keep things as accurate as possible, Greengrass reportedly interviewed more than 100 family members and friends of those who perished. He hired flight attendants and commercial airline pilots to play those roles; hired several civilian and military controllers on duty on Sept. 11, including the FAA's Ben Sliney, to play themselves; culled facts from the 9/11 Commission Report; and rehearsed and shot his actors in an old Boeing 757 at England's Pinewood Studios.Even Barry Ackroyd's hand-held cinematography, John Powell's muted, anxious score and the plane set fixed to computer-controlled motion gimbals to simulate the pitch and roll of the aircraft urge the viewer to think of this as a you-are-there experience. Yet no one really knows what happened on United 93. We have evidence from phone calls made from the plane as passengers were able to give blow-by-blow accounts and say goodbye to loved ones. Greengrass gives us one of the empty seats on that flight. We are the 41st passenger.

The experience overwhelms. Time passes in weird ways. The four nervous terrorists wait seemingly forever to make their move. But jump the gun. Instead of waiting until they were closer to DC, the terrorist took over the plane too early, they realized they had to be able to hold everyone in control for 2 hrs instead of 30 minutes. The panicked passengers wait seemingly forever to make their move. Helplessness engulfs us, then determination takes hold.During these breathless moments, Greengrass cuts away to the desperation and confusion in airport control towers, the FAA's overwhelmed operations command center in Herndon, Va., and the military's unprepared operations center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. For all their monitors and electronic equipment, there is a horrific, low-tech moment when controllers at Newark Airport get a perfect view across the Hudson of the second plane hitting a World Trade Center tower. No one can even speak."United 93" is a sincere attempt to pull together the known facts and guesses at the emotional truths as best anyone can. Then, in the movie's final moments, the impact of the heroism aboard United 93 becomes startlingly clear.

The news coverage on 9/11 focused on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. News of United 93 at that time was like "A plane went down in Pennsylvania, now back to New York." There were real heroes aboard that flight and now we have an idea what they went through and can honor their courage and determination.