Thursday, 11 March 2010

We Have Some Planes.

Like the Rwandan genocide, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States is another event that for the first time made me really aware of plane hijackings, major terrorism and the true extent of and willpower behind suicide bombings. In the days before the Afghanistan and new Iraq wars, this was before car bombs and religious extremism was a nightly news story. So unbelievable was it that when my mother woke me up to tell me it had happened I rolled over and told her to go away, thinking it was some sort of practical joke. But getting myself up and watching the replays of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsing has left one of the most enduring images in my mind, one that can never fail to bring about shock and horror in me whenever I see them referenced. Even watching Man On Wire brought some of that back, with its repeated images of those buildings still standing so shortly after construction.

United 93 was a bold undertaking, coming as it did five years after the events of that day. Like movies dealing with current wars, this was always going to be a hard sell, a film about the one hijacked plane that did not make its target, instead crash landing in a field before reaching Washington, D.C. Delayed out of Newark by earlier inclement weather, the flight was probably lucky to get in the air. The terrorists on board are jumpy and edgy, biding their time waiting for the right moment to launch their attack on the cockpit, not knowing whether or not their co-conspirators in other planes had managed to achieve their goals until they are inside the cockpit.

On the ground, air traffic control are having a hard time believing what is going on. Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Centre in clear weather, but without any real broadcasts from the planes to arouse that much suspicion. They have no reason to believe immediately that these were acts of hostility, instead initially fearing they were tragic accidents involving smaller planes. A naive thought in retrospect, but no one really wanted to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Then another jet hits the Pentagon - it's on. The military gets involved as the traffic controllers jump around, suspecting any plane that does something unusual or doesn't immediately respond is a part of this operation. The military can't get fighter jets scrambled, there just aren't enough of them, and for some reason they're taking off and heading in the wrong direction. The President can't be reached to authorise engagement with civilian aircraft, meaning it's pointless having them out there anyway, since they can't do anything. Besides, the first fighters they can get up there are unarmed.

On the last hijacked plane, people are calling their loved ones and relatives, and they have chance to find out that this isn't a hostage taking exercise. With their families telling them that these three planes have hit such high profile targets, the passengers are no longer wondering how long they will be on the plane, but what their target is. What landmark they will be crashing into as they die. With a pilot of sorts on board, they decide the only way to deal with the situation is to rise up against their aggressors. If they're certainly going to die standing around doing nothing, they may as well give a shot at reclaiming control of the aircraft and hopefully being able to get it safely to ground. Of course, as we know, their bold attempt doesn't end in victory for them, though it might well have saved the lives of countless others on the ground.

Paul Greengrass wrote and directed this incredible hand-held retelling (built, one must assume, to no small extent on speculation of what actually went on onbaord United flight 93) that is one of the most consistently tense films from the get-go that I have seen in a long time - despite the fact that we all know how the film is going to end. As much as there might be a part of your mind wishing and cheering for the success of the passengers, you know your dreams will not be realised. They are going to perish. Barry Ackroyd captures it all with his stunning cinematography, redolent of his later work on The Hurt Locker.

The amazing thing about United 93 is the different representations of fear through the actions of people in very different situations both in the air and in the ground. The hijackers are not villainised any more than what has already been shown in media over the last eight years, and they are also terrified. They just channel their fear into determination. Which is exactly what the passengers of United 93 do - they take their fear and turn it into a resolve to overthrow. On the ground, confusion and fear reign the day, as no one knows what is going on or has the opportunity to formulate any real action plan. And with so many planes in the air, and every one of them a possible weapon, there is a hell of a lot to fear and not enough people to fear them all. Looking back one could easily say action should have been taken earlier, but in reality there just wasn't any information, communication, or precedent for this kind of occurrence. They were, pardon the pun, flying blind, and making it up as you go along will always leave room for improvement.

A truly incredible movie, touching and powerful and affecting, examining one of the most poignant moments in recent western history whilst still managing to craft an exceptionally taught motion picture. 5 stars.

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