The best indication of the respectful intentions behind United 93–a retelling of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, focusing on the hijacked plane that crash-landed in rural Pennsylvania–comes at the inevitable point, positioned about halfway through, when the first plane hits the World Trade Center. Seen from the perspective of an air-traffic control booth across the river, the plane makes its approach until, at the point of impact, writer-director Paul Greengrass cuts to CNN footage of the event itself. Greengrass is smart and sensitive enough to know that whatever he could create couldn't possibly overshadow the sickening experience we all already shared watching that image over and over when it happened.
That knowledge, joined to a gloss-free, largely handheld camera style, makes United 93 an extraordinary piece of filmmaking in service of what ultimately feels like an unnecessary film. Shot from the ground level, it begins as a keenly observed men-at-work movie, following pilots, stewardesses, terrorists, soldiers, air-traffic controllers, and passengers as they go about their jobs. Greengrass has an eye for capturing a telling detail without dwelling on it, in the mundane conversations that allow a pilot and co-pilot to bond on their first flight together, or the body language of a terrorist seemingly determined to put off his task as long as he can. The knowledge of what's to come allows Greengrass to build almost unbearable tension reinforced by his characters' ignorance–and later, their slow realization–of what's going on.
A star-free cast of character actors and some of the real-life 9/11 ground crew reinforces the horrifying you-are-there quality. It's a frighteningly immersive experience. And United 93 functions best as a kind of horror film. Everyone watches as the dull, everyday moments of a day give way to death and destruction they can do little to prevent. The effect is gut-wrenching in a way that gives new life to the cliché. It's upsetting viewing that will probably hit a lot of audience members on an almost physical level. Just keep telling yourself "It's only a movie."
Except, of course, it isn't. Greengrass has pieced together an unforgettable, honorably intentioned film from the details of that Tuesday morning. And well, the "and" remains elusive as the credits roll. We all lived through this not so long ago; it's an odd thing to make a film whose most striking effect is its ability to bring the feelings of Sept. 11 flooding back, then close on a profoundly disturbing note. A crasser film would have been easier to digest and dismiss. It's hard to do either with United 93, and that's either its genius or its folly.