Wednesday, September 12, 2007
DVD Review: United 93
My introduction to United Airlines Flight 93 was in the early hours of September 12, 2001. Not owning a television, I was following the unfurling, hypnotic spectacle on the internet. ('September 11' would later be acknowledged as being the first major international event to have been communicated to the world in real time via the 'net.) I was plugged in to a large number of websites - one of which belonged to United Airlines. At some point during the fiasco, having refreshed their site in my browser, there was a stark, simple message on the company's homepage: "United Airlines regret to announce that we appear to have lost another aircraft." (United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane hijacked, had already been flown into the World Trade Center's South Tower.)
My introduction to the Paul Greengrass film - United 93 - was as a result of the, then, Sydney Film Festival Artistic Director Lynden Barber's decision to include it in his program for the 2006 festival. I was the Events Manager for Barber's final festival (an hypnotic and terrifying ordeal in its own right) and I had taken the opportunity to sneak in and watch this film. About 15 minutes into it, my mobile phone, silently, announced that I was needed somewhere. We had a huge number of Festival Sponsor post-screening functions immediately following the film - and there was the entirely necessary corporate sponsorship banner positioning to be attended to. Almost gratefully, I slid from the theatre. I had missed the beginning and I was going to miss the end ... and until the other night when I saw the film for the first time, I didn't realise just how grateful I should have been.
The post-United 93 screening functions were, as you might imagine, dire affairs. Ghostly white and subdued, corporate Sydney wandered dazed and undone into their little roped-off exclusion zones - truly stunned by what they had witnessed. I had imagined they would be, and had arranged for the lights to be dimmed in the holding pens I had any control over and encouraged the event staff who bothered to listen to be mindful of what our cheque-signers had just witnessed. I adored Lynden Barber's festival ... and especially his inclusion of this film. The State Theatre, where it screened, had just had a new 'rock concert' sound rig installed ... and United 93's momentous and almost impossibly layered soundtrack (Martin Cantwell's Sound Editing and John Powell's Original Score) gave it a paint-and-wall-paper stripping run for its money.
One of Greengrass's masterstrokes is the casting. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) once said that "casting is 65 percent of directing", and in the case of United 93 I would, possibly rather magnaminously suggest, that the casting is almost 90 percent of the work's cinematic torque. The flight crew (pilots and cabin attendants) are all played by real crew - some of whom work for United Airlines. On the ground, the Civilian and US Military Air Traffic Controllers are played by real air traffic controllers – and in some cases, the people who were actually working on the morning of September 11. The passengers are played by relative unknowns, and it is this choice that ensures the film demands an immediate and instinctive respect. There is, not at any time, any "Acting" going on. Yes, there is knowledge and technique … there is commitment and passion … but ultimately, it is the anonymity of these actors that powers their presence in this work in precious and commanding ways. Many Directors and Casting Directors choose this casting path to walk – but very few have succeeded in matching the power of the unreservedly adventurous and uncluttered energy with the material that Greengrass manages to inspire in this work and from his brilliant cast.
The editing by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse is astonishing and entirely worthy of their Oscar™ nomination … even though they lost - inexplicably - to Thelma Schoonmaker's work on Martin Scorsese's chronically over-rated, sentimental favourite The Departed. Greengrass, too, was nominated for the Oscar™ for Best Achievement in Directing, capitulating too, to Mr Scorsese.
I have always been greedy for detail - and Barry Ackroyd's Cinematography re-defines the possibilities of the hand-held camera and strikes the perfect aviation-clinical look throughout the 'inflight' interiors. His colours and tones are bone-bearingly real, and his and Greengrass's camera becomes almost lascivious as it prowls the darkest and most unlikely corners of the entire, unravelling horror. From the chaos on the ground to the habitual inflight prattle, Greengrass is everywhere. He pins each and every minute detail of his formidable narrative to your every breath ... choking you with his drive, intention and pace. His virtuoso camera angles are a lesson in themselves and the camera's battle for stability and equilibrium in the post-hijack cabin of United Airlines Flight 93 is unrelentingly painful. That there is even the slightest semblance of hope for a different denoument is the mark of a truly great storyteller ... and a water-tight and skillful ensemble and crew.
From its simple, eerily familiar and almost routine beginning to the blistering mid-point where the tension can no longer be contained, United 93 is a masterful cinematic ante-mortem examination … and even though forensic investigators have contradicted the popular myth that the passengers managed to make it into the cockpit, the final few minutes of United 93 will connect so brutally with your heart that it may be almost impossible for you to stand it.
It was only through the wide-eyed wonder at what real and raw courage and determination looks like, that I could.
Donate to, and view, the Honour Flight 93 National Memorial and buy the DVD.
Image courtesy United 93.