United 93, director Paul Greengrass' docudrama account of the one hijacked flight on Sept. 11, 2001, that did not reach its target, begins and ends with prayer. As the film opens, four Muslim terrorists quietly, calmly pray in Arabic in a nondescript hotel room near the Newark, N.J., airport; several hours of real time (and about 110 minutes of film) later, the hijackers' now frenzied prayers are mingled with the supplications of United 93's passengers as the plane plummets toward a Pennsylvania field.
It's a subtle, powerful framing device that is typical of Mr. Greengrass' remarkable film, which is utterly tense, utterly compelling, and utterly believable. Although rated R for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence, the film is about as good a recounting of the Sept. 11 events as one could have hoped for from Hollywood, and highly recommended to those who can stomach its realism.
The film alternates its focus between the flight itself and frantic, confused communications on the ground between FAA officials, air traffic controllers, and NORAD military commanders. The bulk of the action occurs in real time, illustrating just how much information had to be processed, both on the ground and on the plane, during the relatively short period of the attacks.
But United 93, thankfully, is not an action film. We like rollercoasters because we can subject ourselves to compulsive feelings of fear while being reasonably confident that we're in no actual danger. The heightened unreality of most action films produces the same effect. We like the shock that startles and then dissipates-we're looking for an adrenaline rush, not empathy.
Mr. Greengrass carefully sidesteps such an easy approach to the story of United 93. He stages the film without a traditional story arc and never lets his audience off the hook from start to finish. The film is not graphic-in fact, it's remarkably discreet. Yet the experience is emotionally draining, with no artificial ups and downs, no comfort from knowing that we're still firmly secured to the tracks of a thrill ride.
Neither does United 93 descend to the realm of the TV movie, in which characters talk not to each other but to the audience, becoming mouthpieces for lazy scriptwriters trying to fill in back story instead of living, breathing human beings. Mr. Greengrass avoids this temptation by casting mostly unknowns, and some actual participants in the events of that day, and by ignoring almost all of the rules of scriptwriting 101. He doesn't even try to fill in the back story of the passengers on the plane. What we know about them comes from snippets of casual conversation and telling details in tearful, last-minute phone calls.
Some may complain that, as a result, none of the characters on the flight take center stage. Yet this makes their story, and heroism, all the more compelling. These passengers could have been any of us-they were us-and in the furious intensity of their ordeal they made snap decisions that may have saved hundreds of lives.
Most apprehensions about United 93 probably stemmed from concerns over what political stance the film would take. The nature of film is to filter events through the creator's artistic lens. But Mr. Greengrass' goal here, it seems, is to make certain that his lens provides as little distortion as possible-to present these events as straightforwardly and honestly as he's able, without obvious political or ideological baggage.
"[Being] truthful," Mr. Greengrass has said of his prior film Bloody Sunday, which recounts the 1972 peace march massacre in Northern Ireland, "is about whether you believe in the world that the film creates, whether you believe that the picture . . . that we paint is credible. And if we can do that, we can create that account of it that people will look at and think that 'it must have been something like that.'"
There's a beautiful, welcome simplicity in that ambition, and Mr. Greengrass' ability to achieve something similar with United 93 provides a fitting tribute to the heroic passengers on that plane. One almost wishes that United 93 could somehow be the last frame of this story on film, that no less disciplined talent would touch the subject. One shudders to think what Oliver Stone's World Trade Center will deliver this August.