“The event’s still wreathed in confusion, ignorance, conspiracy and mythology,” says director Paul Greengrass during the commentary of his shock and awe docu-drama. The story of the fourth plane hijacked on that fateful September day, United 93 is shot in (almost) real-time, the action split between the Boeing 757’s cabin and the authorities on the ground. It’s incredibly visceral: improvised scenes of air-traffic controllers huddled around monitors deliver unimaginable tension; the terrified passengers phoning loved ones before taking on the hijackers (“Let’s roll!”) lodges a lump in the throat.
Greengrass, whose Bloody Sunday serves as a stylistic template, skilfully pieces the story together from phone transcripts, cockpit transmissions and the 9/11 Commission Report. It’s a fractured history, narrative black holes Polyfilla-ed with (sometimes) controversial assumptions. Was German passenger Christian Adams really the coward he’s shown as here?
Happier dealing with human-interest than hard facts, the extras don’t answer any of the questions the film raises. Greengrass’ chat-track skirts thorny issues, instead delivering platitudes about the global impact of 9/11: “Everything that’s happened in the last five years has been driven by these two hours”. There are no interviews with experts nor crash site footage. Even the alternate Afghanistan-set opening mentioned on the yak-track is absent. In their place are ‘Memorial Pages’ (brief bios of the passengers and crew) and an hour-long documentary, United 93: The Families And The Film. The latter follows several actors as they meet the bereaved relatives of the passengers they’re playing on-screen. It sometimes feels troublingly ghoulish – such as when an actress is handed the ashes of the passenger she plays – but only hearts of granite would be unmoved by the grief on display.