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United 93United 93 on DVD

By Jim Bray

I have a feeling that "Where were you when the planes hit the twin towers" will become to this generation what "Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated" was to mine.

Just as I remember clearly that I was at recess in grade six on that fateful day in 1963, the Tuesday morning that was September 11, 2001 is seared into my memory, as are the hours spent watching CNN afterward (since where I was at the time didn't get Fox News Channel).

Since then the dinosaur media have refused to show us many images from that day, probably so we don't remember why we fight and will therefore get tired and bored with a war that must be won and therefore put the naturally ruling democrats back into power. And Hollywood, which is quick to exploit any disaster, disease or dysfunction, has largely ignored the September 11th atrocities and done its best to pour cold water on the war it brought to a head.

Until Paul Greengrass, who apparently claims to be no right winger, created United 93, the unbelievably gripping story of the one hijacked flight that missed its target that horrible morning, thanks to accidents of timing, modern technology and – most of all – the courage and spirit of ordinary Americans.

A delay on the ground off meant United 93 was later in taking off than the other three planes that were used to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that turned out to have been a Godsend to all but those on board the flight.

The movie opens with the perpetrators getting ready for their evil gig, praying and shaving and heading for the airport. Following are scenes of other passengers getting ready to board, the crew starting their day, air traffic controllers anticipating another ordinary day….

"Ordinary" is the best word to describe how this extraordinary film treats the subject matter. It is told in an almost real time (though it isn't) documentary style (though it isn't) where the day unfolds normally, then events (starting with small hints of things going awry) take over and we're propelled at warp speed into the atrocities of that terrible day.

Yet among the confusion, the bureaucratic snafus, the horror, the good and decent side of humanity comes through loud and clear as people unprepared for the challenge of their lives rise to the occasion. What's usually a well-oiled machine threatens to break down, but it doesn't really (perhaps responses could have been quicker and maybe they could have been more forceful, but let's face it, people are human and when startled by something so outrageous that it will still boggle the mind years later they tend to hesitate, if for no other reason than they want to ensure they do exactly the right thing).

Then there's the collection of ordinary people on United 93. We get to see the hijacking unfold as it undoubtedly did, in horrifying reality. The terrorists, classic bullies who are tough when things go their way, begin having doubts when the passengers start gathering and making their plans. Then the passengers mount their counterattack (though we don't remember hearing Todd Beamer's "Let's Roll" on the soundtrack) and we're with them all the way.

Even though we know how the story ends, and even though we know that to change history for the sake of the movie would be to destroy the film, we still hope against hope for a Hollywood ending. And of course it doesn't come.

When United 93 is over, we were exhausted emotionally, having lived vicariously those couple of hours. And we were left in awe of this remarkable filmmaking achievement, which doesn't sensationalize (you never see the other three planes hit, for example, nor are you beaten over the head by politics or ideology) and which unfolds so matter-of-factly that it kind of sneaks up on you.

And you begin to understand the difficulties the authorities had that day. For example, the computer screens showing the literally hundreds of blips representing airplanes on route are dizzying and it's easy to see how it could take time for them to sort out a few blips from the crowd.

This is no star vehicle, and that helps. I'd never heard of the director before (though he also made The Bourne Supremacy) and the cast is made up of names with which we aren't familiar. And all that ensures we aren't distracted by names and faces, while the performances are all extremely believable. The film's pacing is perfect, the building of the suspense (yes, there's suspense even though we know what happens) is nerve wracking, and at the end of the movie we just sat there for a few moments, overwhelmed.

Now that's a movie experience!

It's a good DVD experience, too. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (a Pan&Scan and two disc special editions are also available), the picture quality is sharp and clean and colorful. It looks like a Hollywood film rather than a documentary, and that's fine.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and it's very good as well. The front channels are used to spread dialogue and sound effects and the low frequency channel comes in at just the right times (take off of the 757, for example) and is used well.

Extras include a nearly hour long look at the real life families of the people aboard the flight, as well as 40 written biographies of the passengers and crew who died that day. There's also a director's commentary track.

We at TechnoFile usually hesitate to say a movie is a "must see" but considering the misinformation and downright lies that have been spewed since 9/11, this movie should be viewed to help put events of the past few years into a better perspective.

United 93, from Universal Home Entertainment
110 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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