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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

'United 93' tackles terror with grace

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor

Friday, May 5, 2006

"United 93," Paul Greengrass's film about the Sept. 11 high jacking of the United Airlines flight that crashed outside of Shanksville, Penn., is a stunning film that documents, in real time, the events on that flight.

Greengrass, who refused to cast known "stars" in the film, avoids sentimental clichés or overtly political messages. The ultimate effect is a brilliant tribute to a historical event.

"United 93" perfectly captures the mundane and, ultimately, devastating aspects of Sept. 11. Instead of focusing on cheesy human interest stories, Grenngrass smartly relies on observed "normal" details to gain the audience's attention and sympathies: A stewardess slips off her slippers before offering the morning drink cart to passengers, two old men trace their hiking trip in Yosemite National Park (Flight 93 was supposed to travel from Newark to San Francisco) and a woman fidgets with her Mp3 player.

Through these details, the viewer understands Greengrass's point: Terrorism is most threatening when it hinders our daily movements, making the everyday – like riding a plane to a national park – into something deadly.

Greengrass's portrayal of the four highjackers on Flight 93 is balanced. The actors found a fine balance between being frightening men and willing assasains, becoming nervous martyrs who were unsure of how, or when, to execute their attack.

The intensity of actors like Lewis Alsamari, who played highjacker Saeed Al Ghamdi, gave the terrorists a haunting dimension. Long gone are the Cold War days of one-note Russian bad guys. In today's world, a highjacker politely talks to fellow passengers and dresses in clothes from the Gap.

Greengrass's film is the first feature to deal with the events of Sept. 11. Unlike other war movies or historical films, the events of Sept. 11 do not lend themselves easily to the big screen.

Is it too soon to have a movie about the “war on terror” while it remains unresolved? Is the nature of the material too steeped in politics and cultural landmines to be effective, objective art? Greengrass, who also directed "Bloody Sunday" and "The Bourne Supremacy," handles the material with grace and dignity.

For me, the scariest part of "United 93" came when I forgot I was watching a movie based on real events.

One hour into the film, the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center's south tower. Greengrass shows the faces of air traffic controllers at the FAA headquarters.

People yell expletives as they watch the plane fly into the shining glass of the World Trade Center tower on CNN, and then turn silent, mouths agape in horror. Then noticed my mouth was open, too. I forgot how stunning that footage, which we all watched at school and in our homes for weeks after the attacks, really was.

The end of "United 93" may seem controversial to some. Greengrass paints the picture that certain passengers (like Todd Beamer, who famously yelled, "Let's roll") overtook the cockpit and purposefully crashed the plane to avoid hitting the terrorists target, the Capitol.

The final shot is of Flight 93 nose-diving into the green pastures of rural Pennsylvania. Then, the screen goes black.

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