A review of “United 93” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ****

Rating: R for language, violence and difficult subject matter

Run Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes



Paul Greengrass has touched a dramatic nerve in his quest to re-examine the nightmarish fate of United Airlines’ Flight 93, which departed Newark on the morning of September 11, 2001 en route to a fatal date with destiny.

Tuesday, September 11 was an ordinary American day in every respect. Gorgeous weather with the promise of fall in the air, four thousand plus planes in the skies, business as usual below. For a group of air traffic controllers that business took a chilling turn when they lost contact with American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston as it began to veer off its intended course (Los Angeles) and inexplicably turn towards Manhattan. Snippets of a foreign tongue were picked up over the flight recorder, alerting them that something was seriously amiss in the cockpit.

The rest is history, specifically the most tragic day in modern American history. AA 11 slammed into World Trade Center’s north tower followed shortly thereafter by United Airline’s Flight 175 careening into WTC’s south tower and AA Flight 77 nose-diving into the Pentagon.

 Heavy traffic on the tarmac led to a ground delay that one could argue was the lucky break of United 93’s swan song. As the last targeted flight to take to the skies the passengers of UA 93 were “blessed” with the knowledge of the WTC disasters from urgent phone calls home while terrorists struggled to maneuver the plane towards a Washington landmark and control the increasingly belligerent crowd.

With nothing to lose the passengers of UA 93 turned reluctant heroes who unwittingly helped usher in an era of rampant paranoia and global terrorism. Indeed these were the very first people to inhabit and confront the reality of our 9/11 world. Forced to act they banded together and stormed the besieged terrorists, wreaking havoc in the main cabin and ultimately breaking down the door to the cockpit and wrestling for control of a plane that made its final breakneck descent into a desolate Pennsylvania field.

Greengrass utilizes a powerful documentary-like style to piece together a trenchant study of lost innocence and defiant courage. Small moments are commanding in their simplicity – passengers checking in for their flight, a pair of travelers planning hiking routes in Yosemite, etc. Military, FAA and air traffic control scenes combine with both tranquil and harrowing images of doomed UA 93 for a universal picture of right gone wrong.

Greengrass wisely steers clear of the need to canonize the everyday folk who were inauspicious victims of fate, allowing their natural vulnerabilities and the judicious concept of wrong time/wrong place to lead a narrative path to its traumatic conclusion.

On every level “United 93” achieves its objective, re-telling a crucial piece of our history on a well-measured crescendo of tension and a palpable sense of dread and destruction. Of human life and of virtue, of confidence and control. It’s a difficult, defiant and ultimately frenzied experience but its social value is timely and without measure. We mustn’t let ourselves forget.

Harder to express is the sense of rage the film generates, a bitter pill of bile that forms at the sight of cowardly bastards who murder innocent victims in the name of their unholy god. Their humanitarian abyss gripped me in a vice of breathless fury and left me a searing mess of coursing tears, shaking hands and hollow heart.

Too soon for the original wounds to have healed?  For some, perhaps. But this gritty and suspenseful drama is a fresh and powerful reminder of September 11, 2001, the day the music died.