Reviewing: United 93

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is coming out in August this year, featuring Nicholas Cage and Maria Belo, but until then Paul Greengrass offers up “United 93” the tale of the fourth plane that never made it to its target on 9/11.

The movie is shot almost in a documentary style that gives the impression it’s the actual footage from the actual events. The movie scenes switch back and forth between the plane, air traffic control and military command, everyone trying to make sense of what’s happening given the information they know. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, it simply documents an event rather than inserting pieces of information we know now and offering a more retrospective story. This is also a dangerous aspect in my opinion simply because it gives the impression that all of this is accurate when I can’t imagine how they managed to piece together the complete dialogue of either the passengers or the terrorists if everyone died. Phone conversations and cockpit recorders aside, there are obviously many things they could not possibly know. This became apparent to me more and more as the film progressed and there were scenes of terrorists saying Islamic prayers, most of which didn’t make sense because the Arabic in the film was more or less incomprehensible. There was also a scene where the camera shifted back and forth between the cockpit where two terrorists are uttering Islamic prayers and then immediately to the back of the plane where the passengers are uttering Christian prayers which made it feel that it was one religion versus the other; both groups competing for God’s attention.

I guess the point of the film is to give the viewer a sense of what happened rather than what actually happened scene by scene, word for word. Does it make a difference? Definitely. And therein lies the problem; the viewing audience will no doubt get both mixed up. Much of what the film showed was basically information provided by the government so I cannot assume this is 100% factual in any way given that it’s one version of the events. This is important to consider because most people watching it will be making certain assumptions about fact; it’s almost impossible not to when you factor in the way it was shot.

The movie isn’t really entertaining, probably because it wasn’t designed to be. But it doesn’t attempt to further any understanding of what really happened or why it happened. I highly doubt we will ever see a film like that. There are so many unanswered questions about what exactly happened on 9/11 that one can never accept one version of the truth as brought to you by CNN or the American government. I’m not calling this or anything else 100% propaganda, but in terms of truth and reality it’s far from it. For me 9/11 was my second day of classes during my freshman year of university. Living near the Toronto airport I remember so many planes being diverted from the U.S. that I was barely able to hear the TV. And I remember so much misinformation during that very long day that some of the questions people were asking then continue to be unanswered now. People are generally afraid to ask them or question anything about the history lest they be deemed anti-American or a history denier. What you usually get is one group that totally accepts everything as the truth, another that totally denies it, and nothing in the middle. So if someone were to make a film that really captured my attention it would be one that challenged the â??truthâ?, which investigated history rather than dishing up a glossy version.

All in all “United 93” does not offer anything substantial that you would expect from a film. What will probably carry it is either “controversy” or “hype”, both of which it does not live up to. The point of the film was simple: get people to shake their heads and say “that’s horrible” and in that sense it succeeds.

Bottom Line: 2/5


  • “I canâ??t imagine how they managed to piece together the complete dialogue of either the passengers or the terrorists if everyone died.” … Thank you !!
    “that itâ??s one version of the events”.. Again, Thank you !!

    As i have commented on Natasha’s (Mental Mayhem) Review of the movie, In my openion the continuos insertion of scenes of the “alleged” hijackers reading the Quran and and reciting prayers is only and simply to establish a link in the viewers minds between Islam and terrorism, I don’t beleive such scenes were necessary or had any other goal than that.

    As for getting the facts straight and hearing both sides of the story, The problem is that people don’t want to hear the other side, for reasons i cannot fathom, Even though There are evidence, documented evidence and proof that suggest a conspiracy or cover-up if you will, people just don’t want to listsen to it. Resources on this subject are abundant online and on DVD, but i shall not get into this here and now, i’m sure you don’t need the drama that happened on my blog and on mental mayhem’s on your page 🙂

    In conclusion, I think that you have provided an Excellent and Objective Review, Thank you.

  • Hey Bakkouz, sorry I haven’t been paying attention to the drama. I think even the most obective person will have to admit that the movie isn’t close to being 100% factual and that the events which happened on that day have a lot of questions still unanswered. I didn’t watch the video you mentioned in your review but I do remember seeing “911:In Plane Site” and suffice to say it may not be totally accurate either but it IS another version and it does pose questions which beg to be answered. As far as conspiracies are concerned I don’t know. The word comes with severe connotations that one is denying history or being blind to truth, even ignorant. “Cover up” resonates the same way. What is evident is that there is information that is missing, and what information has been offered is not exactly dependable.

    As for the praying scenes. I’m assuming they are based on the cockpit recordings and if I had to guess I’d say something like that was probably uttered. The problem here is that link you were talking about was already established by most, and the film whether intentionally or not does re-establish that in the minds of viewers. I mean when you watch it you’re thinking that Muslims are evil. It does let the viewer sort of think for themselves but I’m guessing that the overwhelming majority of people who will watch this movie will not end up thinking for themselves.

  • I think there is nothing wrong, nothing backward or stupid or callous or “ugly American”-ish, in seeing this film, and simply sympathizing: letting yourself cry, rage, marvel at the sheer horror of human violence. Not everyone in America is doing that, however. The Slant critic called the movie “hagiographically biased,” and a good friend of mine, a struggling Christian, thought that the people who were praying were called “to die on the cross,” not rush the cockpit. He didn’t like the idea of them being thought of as “heroes.”

    For my part, I liked it. I think the conspiracy theories are bogus (the person I least trust is Rumsfeld, he makes my skin crawl, and if anybody is hiding anything, I think it’s him… But that’s just me), so that didn’t stand in my way. I thought it was extremely well-made, very tightly wound, excruciatingly painful to watch, a good kick in the pants for me, a new American.

    My review is here:

    Thanks for sharing yours.

  • A number of things you should’ve investigated here. First, you ask again and again, where did the information come from: the government you surmise. Well, that’s basically inccorrect. Greengrass, the director, got information from victim family members but he also got a huge amount from the 9/11 Commission. This commission, although it did contain people actively working within the government, was not a government commission and did have non-government members.

    In fact, if you did some checking, you’d find there were fights with the Bush administration to get a great number of things about the events released. The government had information it didnâ??t want to release because it was â??sensitiveâ?. The Commission pushed to get much of this released. The investigation was actually largely pushed along by victim’s families who are still not fully satisfied by its conclusion because the US government wouldn’t give them all the information they wanted. But many felt it was as close as they would ever get, and while perhaps not as detailed as the wanted, it gave them an overview that made things clear.

    So, it was not a movie about the government version of events. It was a movie that followed as closely as possible the facts as they were known by the 9/11 Commission and from interviews with victims’ families. And much was gleaned from both, as conversations were had as the film showed via airfones. Of note as well is that although there was debate about â??is it too soon,â? many victimsâ?? families felt it was a well made movie that did not point fingers but retold a story and they found a sense of closure in it.

    Second small point, Greengrass – a Brit – earned his stripes as a documentary filmmaker and has won legion acclaim in the UK. He’s not a government patsy. He made a big budget flick stateside to get the currency he needed to make this film. He wanted to make this film. It was not intended as propaganda but as close as possible of a documentation of the facts as they are known today.

    Thirdly, I was curious about your take on this: “There was also a scene where the camera shifted back and forth between the cockpit where two terrorists are uttering Islamic prayers and then immediately to the back of the plane where the passengers are uttering Christian prayers which made it feel that it was one religion versus the other; both groups competing for Godâ??s attention”

    I think you took out the context here. It’s interesting because you set it up as conflict, when many saw it as common ground. The context of that scene is that everyone is scared to death, hijackers and passengers. They are all praying and unifying themselves through their tremendous fear of a situation that seems to be playing out on cruise control. Itâ??s started and no one can stop it. In fact, many were upset by this scene — on the other side of this — because they saw the unity of all those involved in prayer as being sympathetic to the terrorists. Curious youâ??d see it as aggressive instead of unifying, as many felt it was.

    A great deal about this flight has been gathered from verifiable sources. Do some research on the results of the 9/11 Commission and perhaps you’r real problem with this film will subside a bit. It’s not a propaganda film, it’s a film doing it’s best to keep this conversation alive, to shine a bit of light into a day that was, as you yourself describe, difficult to divine.

  • BTW were you also aware that a number of people that actually were on the ground during this event and so had personal knowledge of the events that transpired played themselves in this film? In fact, the FAA chief, Ben Sliney, was one of those, playing himself in the film and really doing a bang up job. That should serve as a bit of a testament to the attempt at veracity Greengrass made.

  • One other note, you mention: “The movie is shot almost in a documentary style that gives the impression itâ??s the actual footage from the actual events.” Yes, this is a docudrama. It’s a film genre, meaning this style is not unique to this film. It’s not posing as something it is not. It is simply part of film category with which you appear unfamiliar. You downplay it because it does what it is defined to do, perhaps suggesting your problem is more with the components of the genre than the film itself.

    Docudrama: A filmed dramatization based on fact that combines documentary and fictional elements. In the production process, “based on” allows the creators of the text wide creative latitude and a docudrama is, at best, a skillful representation of a real person or event.

  • Informer thanks for the information, for lack of a better word. First all the information is government produced, be it the 9/11 commission or voice recordings, the information and “facts” are all based from one side and no where else. I think you’re under the impression that i think the director is a patsy being used for propeganda. This is not necessarily my opinion. What I am saying is that there are certain things which could not possibly be known so we can’t deny or accept them fully without taking that into consideration. What is wrong with this statement? This isn’t a dreamt up story line, it’s history.

    As for the prayers scene, that was just my take on it. Your take is interesting but it’s your own. Neither of us is entirely right nor wrong. It’s what you see or take from a scene the same way that everyone will look at art differently. Also I didnt say it was aggressive, you’d be hard pressed to find my use of that word. It was just the feeling I got.

    Again, I didn’t say it was a propeganda film. And yes I was aware of Sliney’s role in the film. However people in military command or at the airport could not possibly know the exact way things went down on a plane that crashed and where everyone died. The dialogue is pieced together from telephone conversations and voice recorders both of which could not possibly document the entire event as is.

    As for docudrama I’m aware of the style. But to film it in such a way you are giving the impression that it is documented, and documentation implies fact.


  • Sorry, I disagree Nas. The filmmakers did their absolute best to be as objective, honest, and factual as possible. Yes, they had to conjecture many things, like the praying toward the end. The passengers certainly would be praying, and since this was a “religious” mission by the hijackers it’s highly likely they’d be praying as well.

    This movie affected me more than any other I’ve ever seen. If it doesn’t at least get nominated for a boatloand of Oscars it’ll be a crime. 5/5.

  • Nas, I was reading between the lines of your review, and trying to head you off at the pass before you drew a conclusion that was in some ways wrong-headed. Let me take your last point first, then I’ll just add a dribble for you to consider. You say:

    “As for docudrama Iâ??m aware of the style. But to film it in such a way you are giving the impression that it is documented, and documentation implies fact. ”

    Nas, that’s the exact way that docudramas ARE created. That’s the style of the docudrama. You seem to take issue that making it look documented implies it is fact. Well, thatâ??s not really accurate is it. The shaky camera style, etc is used in adverts, obviously not fact. We are also sophisticated viewers. We know that not all of this is known. But there is the simple reality that you sideline: some of this is fact. As I mentioned before, you seem to have more a problem with the genre and than with Greengrass. He’s simple operating within the confines of docudrama. He’s a documentary filmmaker so likely this was a comfortable approach and the best for the material. I’d like you to consider a few excerpts from the “Economist,” that bastion of radical thought, and their take on the film.

    “Mr. Greengrass researched the film meticulously, conducting more than 100 face-to-face interview with family members and civilian and military personnel, learning about everything from what they wore to what they said on the phone. He used either unknown actors or real-life pilots and air-traffic controllers to add to the sense of actualitie. Ben Sliney, the head of the FAA command center, who eventually took the decision to close down American airspace plays himself …

    Mr Greengrass presents the four hijackers not as monsters — that would have been easy — but as ordinary people driven to do monstrous things.”

    They go on to point out how Greengrass could have gone for jingoistic gusto but he did not. He did his best (and his best includes an award winning documentary on Irish terror) to gather as much information as he could to create a film. Obviously he could not get all of it, no one could. Thatâ??s why this is a docudrama. A very educated, well-researched work that provides some insight into what happened on that terrible day. Perhaps broadening your opinion of what is possible and what it took to create this film will allow you to appreciate it for what it is and what it is not and in so doing recognize that this is a brilliant film.

  • The Informer, lol I don’t get it. Is your problem with this whole thing the fact that I didn’t like the film as much as you did and that makes me wrong?

  • 🙂 It’s healthy debate. Let’s just say I’m your guardian angel and I hate to see you headed out in the wrong direction.

  • I have just returned from seeing Flight 93. I was not sure if I should see this movie, but now I am glad I did. It is true that the movie can’t show all of what actually happened, or if somethings happened at all. In the movie the passangers are shown breaking into the cockpit. There is debate as to whether they were able to do that and overpower the hijackers. Some in the FAA believe the hijackers decided to crash the plane rather than allow the passangers to regain control of it. Also, Greengrass took license with what passed between the hijackers and the passangers. How do we really know if the hijackers dragged a stabbed passanger down the aisle of the plane and would not allow anyone to help him until it was too late? This is all speculation. They had to do something to make it interesting. If the hijackers just stood there pointing knives and holding up the detonator of a bomb, that would have been very boring to watch.

    More importantly, I think this license had to be taken in order for us to see the human side of these events. I do not think the scenes of the men reciting the Quran and saying prayers were included to show a link between Islam and terrorism. I found those scenes to be thought provoking. These men knew they were going to sacrifice themselves and were preparing themselves for that end. Greengrass showed the fear and uncertainties of these men. For me, the scenes put a human face on the hijackers. Yes, I agree that the praying of the passangers and hijackers in their own ways seemed to unite everyone. At the end, all knew they were about to die. It seemed to connect them as humans, even if their ideologies and purposes differed.

    The most poignant scene was when the door of the plane was shut and sealed. It was the beginning of the end. Only the hijackers knew what was to happen. The passangers and crew just going about their own business, never realizing that they were to meet death. It was a reminder of how unexpectantly death can come to us. It touched me greatly watching as different passangers called to their families to tell them they loved them and that they would never see them again. It made me think about how I live my own life, and the things that I consider so important in this life. One day all of us will stand before GOD on Judgement Day and have to account to HIM.

    Excuse me for rambling, but I just wanted to share my views.

    Thank you!

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