NOTE: This is a reprint of a review originally posted September 9, 2006. I post it again this evening with the thought that it might encourage anyone who hasn't yet seen the film to view it. It is worth the investment of time and emotion.
I approached UNITED 93 with a good deal of trepidation. When it was released a few months ago, I was intrigued by its outstanding reviews and inspiring story, yet I wasn't sure I actually wanted to view the ordeal experienced by the passengers on United 93. I decided not to see it in a movie theater, as I felt seeing it in the dark on the big screen would be too intense. I wanted to be able to put some emotional distance between myself and the movie by watching it on a smaller screen, with my finger on the fast-forward button if things got to be too much.
Earlier this week the film was released on DVD. I was still uncertain about viewing it, but Mike Clark of USA Today, a film critic I particularly like, mentioned in his 4-star DVD review that among other things, UNITED 93 is "one of the best films about on-the-job professionals ever made."
I was especially interested in the story of the air traffic controllers on that day, and I decided that viewing this film as we approach September 11th would be a meaningful way to mark this somber anniversary. (Has it really been half a decade since that day?) I'll be honest, I did use that fast-forward button a couple of times. I just couldn't watch the evil in action, as the hijackers prayed at the start of the film and then again when they took over the plane.
That said, this was a superbly made film. The low-key documentary-style approach was pitch perfect. How many of us have sat in an airport lounge with the early morning sunlight streaming through the windows, watching the crew walk past us as we wait to board a flight? Small details like that brought home that these were ordinary people on an ordinary flight. Or so they thought.
The remarkable quick thinking and bravery of those on United 93 is fully captured. Truly, these men and women were American patriots to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude.
As I expected, I particularly enjoyed, if that word can be used in this context, the depiction of the air traffic controllers. Ben Sliney, who was on his first day as the FAA's Head of Operations on 9/11, plays himself, as do other cast members. Non-actors, including at least one actual stewardess, fill other roles. (Indeed, the only actor I recognized in the film was Gregg Henry.) Watching the controllers unravel what was happening in the skies was as gripping as any suspense film I've ever seen, even knowing the story. One of the wonderful things that happened on that day, along with the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93, was the courageous and unprecedented decision to ground every plane flying over the United States.
The movie has a running time of one hour and 51 minutes. (The final 10 minutes is a written epilogue and the end credits.) It is rated R for language and intensity.
Roger Ebert's four-star review can be read here.
A 2-disc special edition DVD, which contains a couple of extra documentaries, including one on the flight controllers, was apparently made in very limited quantities and is not easily available. Both the single- and double-disc editions of the DVD contain a director commentary.
Was UNITED 93 worth seeing? Yes.
I recommend watching this film, whether this coming week or in the future, as a very meaningful way to remember the heroism of our fellow Americans.