Today is the 12th anniversary of the 9.11 attacks. I wish I could have been in Manhattan that day but I was at the Toronto Film Festival. Rather than re-post my recollections of what happened here (which I’ve done at least twice), here’s a repost of a 7 and 1/2 year-old review of the best 9/11 drama ever made: “Is Paul Greengrass‘s United 93 (Universal, 4.28) a knockout, a time-stopper, a mind-blower? It sure as hell is. You’re probably going to need to stand outside the theatre for a few minutes after it’s over and just chill…trust me. And then you’re going to want a drink, even if you don’t drink. And then talk it out with friends for an hour or so. See it with some. Don’t go alone.
Christian Clemenson (kneeling) as Thomas Burnett in the middle of passenger huddle during last act of United 93; Cheyenne Jackson, as Mark Bingham, is standing behind with the maroon shirt and hat.
“Is feeling power-drilled all over again by one of the worst real-life nightmares of all time a good thing? To me, it is. It happened, it’s real, and this film knocks your socks off because it takes you right back to that surreal morning and that feeling, that almost-afraid-to-breathe feeling, and to me, that’s partly what good films do — they lift you out of your realm and make you forget about everything but what’s on-screen.
“All I know is that I was watching and taking it all in, and that the old feelings started to build and churn around and then pour back in, like a damburst. The chills and forebodings of doom were back, and this time with a closer, more comprehensive perspective.
“United 93 didn’t make me ‘happy’ but I relished it. I’m not a baby or a coward. I’m not a ‘too-sooner.’ Show me anything that smacks of honesty and hard truth or at least skillful manipulations of same, and I’m there for firsts, seconds and thirds.
“Time‘s Richard Corliss called it ‘unbearable and unmissable.’ Mainly the latter, I’d say. As long as it’s not a cheap-ass horror film, I eat “unbearable” for breakfast.
“Not one frame of this film struck me as distasteful or exploitative. It shows what needs to be shown with as much restraint as could be managed without changing the known facts.
United 93 director Paul Greengrass during filming on set of Pinewood Studios.
“What surprised me is that two-thirds of United 93 don’t have a whole lot to do with United flight #93. They’re about what happened as air traffic controllers, the FAA and the military tried to monitor what was happening with American Airlines #11, United #193 and American #77 (i.e., the flights that slammed into the North Tower, the South Tower and the Pentagon, respectively). It’s about how a lot of focused decent professionals tried to keep up with the horror and couldn’t.
“United 93 runs about an hour and 45 minutes. It waits about 30 minutes before Flight 93 takes off, but you’re not really paying that much attention, frankly, to those doomed souls on the plane…not at first. It’s the confused folks in the control rooms who pull you in. The second plane hits about 45 minutes in, give or take, and it’s another 15 minutes — a full hour — before the hijackers, who’ve waited and eyeballed each other from their first-class seats and stalled, it seems to me, like nervous nellies, before finally making their move.
“For me, that opening hour is classic. Greengrass has never done anything quite as good. The tension and verisimilitude surpasses his work in Bloody Sunday, and that’s saying something. Each and every bit actor, every line…every last piece of it screws you to your seat.
“Those guys playing air-traffic controllers are perfect. Remember the tension in that air-traffic controller scene in the opening moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind? It’s that tripled or quadrupled. Ben Sliney, a gray-haired office manager type who was having his first day on 9/11 as national operations manager for the FAA, plays himself. Nobody, really, seems to be ‘acting’ in this. Every bit player rules in every control-room scene in this film.
Cast of United 93 on Pinewood sound stage.
“What’s so affecting is that you know what’s coming, and Greengrass just lets it come…tick, tock, tick. There’s a spellbinding moment when it all starts…when a 40ish Boston air traffic controller first realizes that American #11 is off-course and not communicating. The moment isn’t especially heightened or emphasized. It’s just this guy going, ‘Okay…something’s off here.’
“Once the hijacking on United #93 begins and the killings and screamings and all the rest of that sad melodrama kick in, then it’s a bit more familiar, especially if you’re up on what’s known to have happened and if you saw A&E’s Flight 93 movie last January. That was an okay film. I didn’t like the family members crying and saying “I love you” to their loved ones who were calling from the plane (which felt almost icky to me), but it was all right. And yet United 93, no offense, is about two and a half to three times better.
“I saw it at the first non-Time magazine press screening on Tuesday night in Santa Monica, and a woman sitting two seats away got up twice, and it’s measure of how caught up I was that I was vaguely irritated when she left the second time. How many times does this woman need to take a leak? Or is she leaving the room to give herself a break from the tension? Either way, I was vaguely irked. (Why should I care, right? It was her business. But I didn’t want any nearby movement.)
“The remarkable accomplishent, for me, is that I felt no sense of time while watching United 93. It lasts about 105 minutes, and it could have been 40 or 50 minutes. I didn’t care, didn’t think about it. The damn thing held me, vise-gripped me. Did I have a good time? Definitely, by my standards. I haven’t sat through a pulse-pounder like this in months, and I can’t wait to see it again.”
Ben Sliney, who was having his first day as national operations manager for the FAA on 9.11.01, plays himself.