It seems natural that the first major production to tackle the September 11 terrorist attacks would focus primarily, but not exclusively, on United 93, the now-fabled flight on which the passengers, mindful of the fact that three other planes had been intentionally crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers, took matters into their own hands, overpowering the terrorists and causing the plane to be crashed into a remote Pennsylvania field before it could strike its target -- believed to be the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. In so doing, they gave their lives but acquired historic immortality.
Employing a cast of almost total unknowns (only character actor David Rasche is recognizable) and shooting the film in the same skittish documentary style he employed for his 2002 Berlin Film Festival-winning "Bloody Sunday," British writer/director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") returns to the kind of socially relevant cinema at which he most excels. In scrupulously following all crucial parties -- terrorists, passengers, air traffic controllers, FAA officials -- Greengrass is able to navigate the corridors of chaos, extract the most essential fragments and piece together an emotional mosaic so forceful, so credible, that viewers will feel as though they are watching the fateful day unfolding, once again, before their very eyes. This time, however, the view is from the inside and with foresight of the tragedy to come, investing the film with an ominous sense of foreboding that many will find simply too real to be bearable.
In the case of "Bloody Sunday," which tackled the similarly tragic massacre of Irish civil rights protesters by British troops in 1972, Greengrass had the luxury of approaching his subject matter three decades after the fact. "United 93" has no such cushion -- just four-and-a-half years later, war, death, Islamic radicalism and terrorism are still front-page fodder, insuring that "United 93" arrives less as a reflection of the past than a reminder of how the world has changed, and what further uncertainty lies ahead. But with time, growing numbers will come to appreciate Greengrass' achievement -- his reverential adherence to accuracy and objectivity, his sensitive refusal to cow to the exploitative or the sensational. It is, in its most essential sense, a film that honors its subject with solemnity -- and that's all anyone has a right to expect. Starring JJ Johnson, Gary Commock, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, Polly Adams, Opal Alladin, Starla Benford, Trish Gates, Nancy McDoniel. Directed and written by Paul Greengrass. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin and Paul Greengrass. A Universal release. Drama. Rated R for language, and some intense scenes of terror and violence. Running time: 111 min