Film Louvre Treasures: United 93 Review

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Summary: . The final moments of the film are very tough to stomach, and it’s possibly one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in films. I shed man tears.

Rating: AAA / 100%

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Khalid AbdallaChristian ClemensonCheyenne Jackson, J.J. Johnson, Sarmed al-Samarrai,
David Alan Basche

Journalist turned director Paul Greengrass, best known among fans for his Bourne trilogy, has been repeatedly accused of overusing jump cuts and shaky effects on handheld cameras, his beloved device for shooting both high-voltage action and drama sequences. Bourne Supremacy would cut every 1.9 seconds, while Bourne Ultimatum, the final installment featuring Matt Damon, wouldn’t hold continuity beyond 2 seconds on an average. Mr. Greengrass also loved to shape up his things with ‘squinty’ zooms (he focuses on the person speaking and then zooms in immediately as if the camera is pricking its ears to listen along) and unsteady motion that perhaps broke a hefty amount of traditional continuity rules – film classicists were not amused. After Damon bid goodbye to Bourne post Ultimatum, Greengrass followed suit and cast the actor in his next film Green Zone, a war thriller based on the non-fiction book Imperial Life in Emerald City by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Despite some glowing reviews (Roger finally embraced Greengrass’ style unconditionally and awarded the movie the maximum 4 stars), the film proved disappointing at the box office.

Fast-forward to 2013: Greengrass’ Captain Phillips starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is performing superbly at the box office. Again, the director chooses to cover a real life event; this time, it’s the 2009 abduction of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips by Somalian pirates. The film has been acclaimed not just for its verisimilitude and the performances but also for developing the Somalian pirates into three-dimensional characters instead of stereotypical caricatures. A lot would probably say it’s his best effort yet, and the film is top notch in staging the entire event realistically. It’s far better than the Bourne Series, but between Supremacy and Ultimatum, Greengrass made another movie called United 93, which had a good run at the box office and was a critical darling. I caught this movie on television today, and boy oh boy, its brilliant! If I were told to pick one film that defines Paul Greengrass’ contribution to cinema, my choice shall be United 93. The final moments of the film are very tough to stomach, and it’s possibly one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in films. I shed man tears.

The situation is grave here. It’s September 11th , 2001, a date that needs no introduction. Two flights crashed into World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon. The fourth, United 93, crashed into a field near the Diamond T. Mine in Pennsylvania near Shanksville. That didn’t go according to the terrorists’ plan – they were heading either to the White House or the Capitol Building. So how did they end up missing their target when the other three hijacking went according to plan? The entire credit goes to the courageous force comprising of thirty three passengers and seven crew members. I tear up again thinking about the final shot in the film – it’s still lingering in my mind. Those brave forty men and women knew the chances of survival were minimal. All they could do was avert a portentous disaster that could result in more deaths – they gave up their lives to save the people who would’ve been killed had the plane crashed into a building. To have this magnitude of selflessness while hoping for the better is something that makes these people heroes forever in our hearts. And Greengrass is a hero for steering clear of any false sincerity or earnestness that usually hampers films dealing in subjects of great cultural, social, political and historical significance. He shoots it straight, and gets it right. Perfect.

While Captain Phillips slowly shifted focus from Captain Phillips and the hijacking pirates to the Navy’s attempts to rescue them, United 93 covers greatly the Federal Avatiation Admistration’s unsuccessful attempts to avert the disasters for the first hour or so. There are tough decisions to be made in situations like this. National Operatives Manager has to decide whether to shut down all the airspace in the United States or not – a billion dollar matter. He is suggested to shoot down the aircraft – a matter of human lives. The radar shows flights diverting from original course and congesting the entire air traffic. The word ‘hijack’ pops up now and then, along with signals that flights are to crash. The World Trade Center goes down first, and the FFA watches in horror on large screens. Then the Pentagon goes down. There is panic. Another flight – United 93 goes off-course and shouts of help are heard in radio transmissions. Its soon realized this flight could go down anytime. While shooting these scenes, the camera seems to be as curious and involved as the actors and the spectators. Greengrass includes a number of profile shots with characters looking upset or shocked, but he isn’t a director to stop too long to ‘capture the beauty of every moment’. Instead, he surges forth with the action – stopping the camera may be a mark of falseness to him, perhaps.

Then he shifts to the passengers’ ordeal once the terrorists take over the flight, killing the pilot and co-pilot and injuring a

Director Paul Greengrass at the Bourne Ultimat...

Paul Greengrass is one of the best modern filmmakers; his work as a journalist in the past is evident in the stories he picks to film(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

passenger. Two take charge of the cockpit, while the other two keep the passengers in check. Similar to United 93, the passengers here have some advantages over the two terrorists: they can speak English, they make calls to their loved ones, and then they decide to do something. The terrorists too have their strengths: the communication between them cannot be understood by the passengers, one wields a knife while a bomb is strapped to the other, and they are in control of the cockpit. Their names are Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Saeed al-Ghamdi and Ahmed al-Nami – Muslims. None of the passengers mention Al Queda, the terrorist organization responsible for most attacks on humanity. Greengrass wisely chooses to convey the difference in religions obliquely through utterances of ‘Allah O Akbar’ from the terrorists and ‘Jesus Christ’ from passengers. My only quibble here is that unlike Captain Phillips, United 93 doesn’t elaborate on the terrorists’ motives or their state of mind: this is perhaps deliberately done to act as a prelude to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that soon caught up in the States. Greengrass avoids subtitles for many of their dialogues, which further helps in raising the level of tension.

He has an ensemble to help in creating a highly convincing scenario of panic and fear. This isn’t a one man show, and Greengrass allows the camera to freely move among the passengers. The actors here act as naturally as if they were sitting on a real plane. The same thing is seen in case of the headquarters of FAA, and it’s obvious Paul and his cast has worked really hard to create a feeling of documentary realism. This makes why it becomes intensely difficult for us to watch the final moments – a heartbreakingly wonderful display of fortitude, mettle and heroism, but alas, without a happy ending.