I thought watching TV series such as 24 and Lost and a host of films of gore and violence (Natural Born Killers comes to mind) or playing Rated R Xbox games are enough to desensitize and prepare myself for Paul Greengrass' opus United 93. I thought wrong.

Truth be told, I was just prepared to watch a silverscreen version of TV documentaries about the passengers aboard the ill-fated, Los Angeles-bound United Airlines flight 93 that was supposed to hit the US Capitol on September 11, 2001. I reckoned it would be another attempt to dissect the events and to put closure to America's most infamous modern day tragedy. Again, I thought wrong.

United 93 is a keen, sharp, and honest fact-based film that reenacts the harrowing events of 9/11 in real-time. Its near-accurate account of events ensures that viewers remember the tragedy, like piercing a scar to reveal a deep wound.

United 93The film begins with the four terrorists preparing for their mission and tracks them inside the airport where the unsuspecting victims-slash-passengers are introduced. From there, the film cuts to the otherwise normal morning operations of 'situation rooms' as, gradually, planes are discovered to be hijacked and crashed into New York's World Trade Center and Virginia's Pentagon buildings. As the film focuses onto the hostaged United flight 93, the passengers discover (through airline phone exchanges with family members) that they are onboard a plane on a suicide mission, and taking part in a series of orchestrated terrorist attacks. Despite the overwhelming shock and fear, the passengers decide to collectively fight back and attempt to take over the plane to safety in vain.

Catharsis is absent. The film makes sure of this. Although inevitable tragedy is expected in the end, it is equally inevitable to find oneself praying for a different outcome. I know I did. Quite stupid, actually, but it just goes to show how moving United 93 is.

Greengrass effectively breaks the line that demarcates the events from the viewers; he draws them into the chaos that resembles the film and lets them feel how the events unfold through compelling hand-held camera shots (as compelling as Blairwitch Project's first viewing). These shots are best seen inside the FAA headquarters, the air traffic control towers in New York, Boston, and Cleveland, and Airforce command post where the bulk of confusion, miscommunication, and misinformation occurred. There is no let-up in the depiction of helplessness and frustration among aviation and military personel, which, given the film's near-accurate account of events, is highly disturbing; that in times of crises, the flow of communication knots around and bogs down to failure. More disturbing to the point of exasperation is the image ingrained in the subconscious from Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 of George W. Bush sitting idly by — devoid of any feelings or action — in a Florida classroom for seven minutes after being informed of the attacks in the WTC. By the time the FAA manager (Ben Sliney, who played the part as himself) finally makes the call of placing the entire US airspace a virtual no-fly-zone until all planes are accounted for, there were heavy sighs of relief and whispers of consolation thrown about the theater air (including mine).

Perhaps because real people portrayed most characters, the film stays true to the real drama and emotions that otherwise might be glossed over by often farcical Hollywood acting. But as far as characterization is concerned, the film remarkably depicts the terorrists in the most objective and straightforward portrayal. There are no flashbacks or hints about Al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden, Afghanistan or Iraq. Only individuals blinded by a cause, who regard their fellow passengers as collateral damage or irrelevant players in a dangerous game with a grand design and purpose. This is where the film earns its laurels. It could have easily manipulated, inflamed, and exploited the viewers' innermost fear and hate, and yet it doesn't try to explain or put meaning into the events or make a political statement out of them (no American flag fluttering boldly in the end, and the like). It just puts the viewers there. And it allows them to determine what reactions to best harbor and express: perhaps to find significance and purpose in the deaths of those on board United flight 93, or maybe to even pluck themselves out of apathy and indifference, or to just remind them that in times of adversity and trepidation, they could set aside fear, rise up to challenges, and become heroes themselves.

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