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UNITED 93 – Flight into terror

Starring: Gary Commock, Trish Gates and Lewis Alsamari
Director: Paul Greengrass
Rated: M

IT is almost five years since the hijacking of the American commercial airliners on September 11, 2001, the crashes into the twin towers in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington DC.

The fourth plane was United 93, from Newark to San Francisco. The passengers overcame the hijackers but were not able to save the plane which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.

This is the year for American films re-creating these events. We have United 93 and in September the release of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre.

All events are media events and most of us remember where we were when we first heard the news of the crashes.

The national critics were at a screening of the British comedy Greenfingers. Without any preparation, the projectionist interrupted the final credits with Sky Television news.

Put off-balance, we wondered whether this was something to do with a disaster movie. Then we saw that this was real time and these were actual events.

With all the radio and television reportage, analyses and interviews, the world was well aware of what happened. Now it is the time for the movies.

It is a good thing that the first film has been entrusted to British film-maker Paul Greengrass.

For almost 20 years, he has been a careful documentary film-maker. He is careful in his research and in his quest for accuracy and truth even when he is interpreting events.

He is best known for Bloody Sunday (2002) which brought the Northern Ireland events vividly alive – and won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival as well as the ecumenical award.

Since then he has ventured into big budget film-making and directed the successful and exciting Ludlum adaptation, The Bourne Identity.

These are the qualities he brings to his screenplay of United 93.

He has, first and foremost, the support of relatives of those who died in that plane. He has spent hours interviewing them as well as traffic control personnel, both civil and military, (quite a number of whom play themselves in the film).

He has listened to the phone messages from the passengers. One of the features of this terrible experience is that many were able to phone from the plane, discovering what had happened in New York, realising what was going to happen to them and sending last loving messages. This aspect is emotionally powerful in the film.

The duration of the film coincides with the duration of the ordeal.

However, the film is broad in scope insofar as it covers the morning of September 11.

While attention is given to the everyday details of boarding a plane and activity at Newark Airport (with which audiences who fly will immediately identify), we are taken to the world of the air traffic controllers and how they handled the increasingly puzzling situation until they saw the World Trade Centre crashes on television.

We are also taken into the military command in Washington, facing the mystery of what was happening, checking authority and rules of engagement, especially for bringing down the hijacked planes.

But, everything happened very fast.

Glimpses are given of the hijackers themselves, young men, praying, committed to their cause, but also more than a touch nervous even when they are acting brutally. That they are suicide bombers is taken as a given – there are no attempts at any explanation of their motivation.

The editing and pace of the film is quite extraordinary, a mosaic of often very short pieces building up into a tense film that re-creates the events, as well as showing us how ordinary men and women make decisions to cope with crises they never dreamed they would be involved in.

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