One hundred and eleven minutes: That's all the time it takes for a movie to go from indefensible to indispensable. But until you've lived those minutes, you're entirely excused for pelting United 93 with every one of the obvious dismissals: It's too soon! It's in poor taste! It's just going to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment! And anyway, what's the point in rubbing our noses in an exhaustively reported tragedy that took place practically yesterday?
Director Paul Greengrass' cinematic Sept. 11 memorial, though, shows that truly great art abrogates all other considerations, including time, taste and the risk of misinterpretation. And I'm not saying any of this because United 93 made me well up on more than one occasion. Hell, if you sat next to me at a screening and poked me with a stick for two hours, you could probably get me to cry. (Yes, I'm that frail.) The movie's grand accomplishment is how responsibly it earns those tears: by consistently valuing authenticity ' emotional and otherwise ' above the cheap impulses to politicize, polemicize or exploit.
In near-documentary style and at an unhurried pace, the film begins by focusing on heroes who almost never get mentioned in a Sept. 11 context: the air-traffic controllers who are responsible for protecting an untold number of lives every day. Much of the action takes place in a handful of control centers, where the guardians of our airways begin to notice that a number of commercial flights are going off course. In their initial calm, these scenes hum with workaday believability (thanks, no doubt, to the presence of the real-life participants in many key dramatic roles); yet even as the awful truth is discovered, a practically civilian level of helplessness persists. Staring at their radar screens and wondering what in the name of God is happening, these working professionals don't know much more than what CNN is telling them. The controllers in the Newark Liberty International Airport tower have a slight edge: They can look out their window and see what's happening to the World Trade Center. It's like a ghastly twist on the old joke about the weatherman who makes his predictions by sticking his head outside the studio to see if it's raining.
NORAD eventually gets into the act, roughly concurrent with the discovery that Flight 93 is one of the likeliest targets ' though the military's response is slowed by bureaucratic snafus and the simple incomprehensibility of the terrorist plot. Speaking of which, I was worried by early reports that the hijackers had been depicted as every bit as frightened as their victims. Only the fuzziest-headed 'progressiveâ?� could get behind such a suggestion of equivalence, so thank God the movie never confuses fear with conscience. While the three al-Qaida operatives who take the United plane exhibit various degrees of trepidation, Greengrass doesn't stoop to speculate if their moral resolve is being tested or if they're merely experiencing garden-variety cold feet.
Neither does he take undue liberties with the passengers' memories. Though interviews with their relatives contributed greatly to the shooting script (and other, reportedly improvised dialogue), all we really learn about these doomed commuters comes from the snippets of conversation any fellow traveler might happen to overhear. Â Making them real is thus left to the great performances essayed by a cast of virtual unknowns: With but a look, actor David Alan Basche manages to convey that Todd Beamer is exactly the sort of can-do individual you want on your side in a crisis.
Relieved of the unfair mantle of matinee idolatry, these lost souls pass by us in tragic, fleeting vignettes. Panicked co-conspirators try to whisper out a takeover plot without drawing their captors' attention, like guilty fourth-graders passing notes in class. A woman grabs a phone to tell her loved ones where to locate her will. Another passenger reveals to his fellow hostages that he's ready to break a hijacker's arm if necessary ' his voice rising in adrenaline-fueled horror that, yes, he's capable of doing just such a thing, and might very well have to. The nuanced treatment makes the film's climax ' the potentially problematic moment when the passengers finally rush the cockpit ' a more mournful proposition than any simplistic recitation of 'Let's roll!â?�
Don't confuse it with catharsis. You emerge from United 93 in quiet devastation, humbled at its perfectly crafted reminder that all life is precious, and that everyone has a right to dignity. Those are lessons that can never be taught too often ' or too soon.