Some movies are hard to watch because they are brutally graphic. Some are hard to watch because they portray something that makes us squirm. Some movies are hard to watch because they hit so close to home. United 93 falls into the latter category. It's the story of United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four planes hijacked on 9/11 and the only one to not reach its target, crashing into a field in southern Pennsylvania. (Warning, this review contains major spoilers, although I think everybody is pretty familiar with this story as it is.)
The movie starts as a normal morning in the United States, moving around to different airports and control centers as the morning rush begins. Things progress in an unremarkable way...until American Airlines Flight 11 stops responding to air traffic controllers. It disappears over Manhatten as flames shoot out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The story quickly unfolds as two more planes stop responding, and the film hops to all the different control centers trying to figure out what's going on as the South Tower gets hit, then the Pentagon.
Throughout all of this, interludes are taken with the passengers of United 93, who are unaware of everything that's going on except for the four Arabs scattered among the passengers. Finally the terrorists jump out of their seats, shove everyone to the back of the plane, and take over the cockpit, killing both pilots and a stewardess. The passengers huddle in the back, sneaking calls on their cell phones until they discover that the WTC has been hit. They decide that this must be a related hijacking and decide to take the terrorists out. The film ends as the men charge and incapacitate the two terrorists guarding them, and then break into the cockpit and, while trying to wrench the controls out of the hands of one of the remaining terrorists, crash the plane into the ground. As the ground approaches on the screen, it goes black and silent.
I can honestly say that of all the thrillers that I've seen, my heart has never pounded so hard as when those men charged the cockpit. Even though I knew the ending, the way that the tension had built and built until it finally broke in those last five minutes left me almost gasping for breath as the credits rolled. I felt a stirring in my heart, a pride in the selfless, self-sacrificing bravery of these men who knew that they were saving countless lives by giving up their own. It was an emotional ride.
For most of the movie, I felt like I had a fist in my gut, just waiting for the next blow to fall and knowing it would come. When the second plane hit the WTC, it was like I was seeing it for the first time, and it was just as shocking and just as painful to watch. That's what makes this film so hard to watch for most people: it strikes so close to home. When watching a movie on other great American tragedies, such as Pearl Harbor or Lincoln's assassination, it's possible to watch without being too emotionally attached because the events took place so long ago. Not so with this movie. These events took place only six years ago, and the memories are still fresh in most of our minds of the horror we experienced on that day.
There are two movies that I think everyone who is emotionally and mentally prepared should see at some point in their life: The Passion of the Christ and Schindler's List. Both should be seen because they remind us of the depravity of man and of the providence of God. They remind us of our own sorry history as a human race, but also of the possibility of redemption. I think every person should be forced to face the horrors of the Holocaust at one time, because it keeps us humble and in awe that God would choose to save monsters like us. And I think that every person should be forced to face the horrors of the Crucifixion, because it was only through those horrors that mankind has redemption.
However, I'm considering adding this movie, United 93, to that list. Why? First, it shows us that our sorry history didn't end with the Holocaust. It continues up the present day. Second, it shows us as Americans what we're up against in this war: fanatic Muslims who are ready and able to destroy us. We can't sit back complacent because they are not complacent. Third, it is a reminder of the depravity of man that anyone would be shocked by, but it is also a reminder of the common grace that God has poured out on mankind. Fourth, it is a wake-up call that we don't know what tomorrow brings. None of those people got on that plane expecting to die. They were expecting to get home, to talk to their family, to get back to work. They were thinking about the present, and the future never came. We need to seize every moment we have, because every moment could be our last.
These are just some thoughts inspired by the movie. It was amazing, one of the most amazing films I've ever seen. Paul Greengrass as director did a marvelous job making it real. They weren't actors talking for a camera, they were real people going about their real lives and real jobs. He actually managed to secure around 15 people to actually play themselves in the movie (various men around the air control centers, both civilian and military). The film was shot with a handheld camera that moved around, jerked and bumped, had to maneuver around people in the way, as if it was just a home video being taken of these important events. The movie was technically and artistically excellent. But more importantly, it was thematically excellent, and treated this true story with the respect it deserved. Greengrass deserved his Oscar nomination for directing, and maybe should have won it. Either way, this is an excellent film, one which I would highly suggest for those prepared for it. But be warned: you'll come out changed. There's no doubt about it.
Disclaimer: This film contains strong language and some graphic violence. Most of the violence is hurried and not focused on, but there are still stabbings, beatings, etc., as first the terrorists and then the passengers fight to take over the plane. Additionally, it is an emotionally moving film that could easily disturb the viewer. Please use discretion.