United 93

I had talked about a story a long time ago on this blog.

What totally confounded me was an item a TV channel ran after 9/11. One of the unfortunate people who had been trapped inside the Twin Towers sent a voice message (which his family later got) on their answering machine in which he basically says goodbye to them.

I was intensely moved by the story——–but I also wondered why did the family give the TV channel these tapes? Weren’t the last words of a father and a husband something private meant for his wife and daughter ONLY? Why were his wife and daughter on TV allowing themselves to be subject to the questions of an intrusive reporter who kept on asking them how they felt knowing that Mr so-and-so would never come back? I understand the reporter was looking to increase the channel’s TRPs by playing on the grief of this bereavement but why was the family letting their genuine grief be made a public spectacle of ?

Sharing relieves grief. Accepted. But does it really help to do it in this very public, voyeuristic fashion?

I had similar misgivings when I went to see “United 93”, a movie about the last few hours of United 93, one of the ill-fated four flights that got hijacked on September 11, 2001.

Was this going to be another commercial venture seeking to make a quick buck by peddling human misery?

After seeing it, my answer is a resounding “No”—- indeed United 93 is one of the most powerful movies to have come out of Hollywood in recent times.

And yet, it could so easily have degenerated into blatant exploitation had it not been for an extraordinary effort from the director, Paul Greengrass.

So how does Greengrass manage to elevate United 93 above maudlin sentimentality and predictable feelings of outrage?

By consciously avoiding all kinds of cinematic clichés.

There are no back stories of the passengers of U93. No flashbacks. No rousing John Williams score. No choreographed tears. No “dialogue-baazi”. No witty comebacks. No wry humour. No stock characters. No lionizing. No villification.

So while the passengers are shown, albeit briefly, making tearful calls to their beloved ones —-that itself never becomes the focus of the narrative. If it had been, then indeed United 93 would have become a commodizing of private grief—the depiction of personal tragedy that the world has no business of “ooh-aahing” over.

Because of this, Todd Beamer’s call to a Verizon operator and their tearful reciting of prayers together is not there. Nor is the action allowed to get out out of the confines of the plane (a temptation must have been there to show the reaction of the people on the other end of the line)—-the only exception is when the spotlight shifts over to the airtraffic controllers who serve to provide the “context” of the tragedy abroad United 93.

Greengrass’s focus instead is the mindnumbing terror inside that claustrophobic death chamber as it careens at breakneck velocity at low altitude— the tossing and turning of the plane, the blood splattered walls, the sobbing and the hushed whispering of the passengers, the red-bandanaed, panicking terrorists shorn off all humanity and at the same time intensely human.

But the fear in itself is not the principal point of focus—had it been so then the movie would also have been exploitative—not of grief but of terror.

Which it is not.

The reason terror is emphasized is only because it provides the backdrop for the real theme of the movie: the indomitable human spirit to “fight” till the end. On one hand, a rag-tag group of terrorized passengers making a desperate lunge at the terrorists armed with plastic knives, the weight of their own bodies and the refreshment cart and knocking down the cockpit door. On the other hand, a religion-crazed lunatic locking his arms around the steering as a group of burly passengers try to pry him loose—-determined to die and to take as many with him as he can even when he realizes that his mission has failed.

What however leaves a wallop in the stomach is the stunning, almost abrupt ending—-the director finishing the movie right at the moment when its impact is the greatest.

And stepping back.

And challenging the audience to think. And reflect.

How many movies now-a-days allow you to do that?

33 thoughts on “United 93

  1. Completely agree with your take on United 93 – infact, shared many a viewpoints in my review too – it was probably one of the very best movies I have seen this year – there was so much temptation to go overboard, but Paul Greengrass is in so much control of the subject.

    The end was simply amazing and very very powerful.

    Superlative review here.


  2. I never can understand wat a TV reporter expects people to answer how he/she felt after having experienced a sad /happy situation.Or else the poll where u get to say “cant say”.the ridiculous intonations to sensationalise every issue on hand,sounds more like Stardust headlines.Better still…Simi Garewal delving into the psche of her guest…How did u feel when ur father got shot ?how was he supposed to feel?is there some protocol or maybe celebrities feel something we havent heard of.
    GOOD review!

  3. Your quote remindde me of what I dislike the most about The Telegraph (the Cal paper i.e.). When tragedies occur, usually murders/dacoities etc. they make sure to have a bloody picture on the main page as well as the daily supplement. Always one of the crying family. It used to bug me, because, well, I understand the family’s not likely to be doing anything else, but must the journalist be so intrusive?

    And then a journo friend of mine said that mostly, it is the families who ask for such photos to be taken. So whose sensationalism is it anyway?

  4. Good review but I am not going to see the movie. I knew some one who never came out of those towers. It is too painful and a bit too soon.

  5. My guess is that it is always a stuggle between the human need for adulation and the human emotion of grief.
    To the mind, adulation is lasting, so it kind of explains ‘why’.

    Sweet review, looks like a winner.

  6. GB, nice review.

    I didn’t have the courage to watch the film – those memories are still fresh in my mind. Also the trailer for the film made it out to be the cliched ‘peddling of human misery’ that most of us intensely dislike (the studio probably has a greater say on the trailer and publicity than the director). From yours and other reviews I read, it looks like the film is quite different.

  7. GB…good review

    According to me, the Indian media needs to see this movie as well as read your review & understand that every issue need not be sensationalized for d sake of TRPs.

    After the Pramod Mahajan incident, the media just kept on going abt it non stop for 3 or 4 days & I was completely bored with that.After seeing the news in the morning, I predicted that the media would be out with their family photos n stuff by afternoon, n describe their childhood n stuff & well….it happened

    Sample this!!! after d Mistress of Spice had an accident recently, an anchor asked this question to his reporter ‘Wahan pe mahoul (dont knw whthr tats d correct spelling)kaisa tha unke girne ke baad???’

    I wud luv to see this movie if it does release here


  8. I don’t want to make light of such issues, and the trauma that the people who suffered might have gone through, but trust me, Arnab, had Mithun-da been on that flight (U93), or on any of the other three, I somehow get the feeling – and believe me I don’t know why -that things could have taken a different course …

    but then that is what people would have called “bhobitobyo” 🙂


  9. I haven’t seen the movie, and so can’t contribute anything significant to the topic.

    @Sue: Why the Telegraph only? Today morning The Hindu in Hyderabad carried a photo of the crying family members of the Hyderabadi engineer abducted and killed by the Taliban on the front page. Yesterday there was a photo of the same people “praying for his safety”. What kind of sesationalism is that?

    I remember another time an unnaturally overweight baby who had come to Kolkata from the village for treatment died, and the TV cameramen had a minor scuffle among themselves to capture his body on camera when the shroud covering him fell open for one brief moment. And this was telecast on TV, with the cameramen shouting, “Sar, sar, amay tulte de!” (Move to the side, let me shoot!).
    Does one have to be inhuman to be a good journalist?

  10. Perfect review indeed! This post refutes all of the possible assumptions I had in mind for not watching this movie.

  11. YOURFAN writes:
    @GB:I have not seen the movie. Don’t know when it will be released over here. But the way you described the movie gave me a spine-chilling feeling and a big lump at my throat. After reading the review it almost seemed that I have seen the movie. Excellent review.

  12. Will watch that movie when it arrives.

  13. Good review. Wonder if it’ll be released in India?

  14. Great review … I agree that it was a great thing that Greengrass resisted any impulse to invent backstories for these doomed passengers .. Though I found it very hard to watch the final act, know how it would end, and indeed turned away at several points, I’m ultimately glad I saw it and even more so that Greengrass made it

  15. I havent seen this movie but based on your review it seems like a nicely executed movie. “The war within” is another movie that you might like to watch, its based from the point of view of a terrorist ( a very well educated one) who wants to take down the grand central.

  16. Vasabjit Banerjee May 2, 2006 — 4:43 am


    On this note, it is quite amazing that not one movie (worthwhile or otherwise) has been made on the 1971 Bangladesh War by the Indian movie industry. Both the scale of human misery and the eventual triumph is amazing.

    We have had hash and rehash epics of the Western front battles; where beautiful belles and songs of longing have replaced the dehumanizing aspects of war, but none from this actually redeeming conflict.

    I indict the Bengali movie industry of Calcutta more than any other. Well, it seems Rituporno and his followers who revel in depicting and glorifying middle class affairs under the umbrella of Bengali culture have quite forgotten the sacrifice and meaning of what the 1971 conflict stood for.

    Vasabjit Banerjee

  17. for once we r talking abt genuinely worth seeing movies as against those where we need to keep our brain in the drawer and swallow the antiemetic!

  18. Was sure to avoid the movie, the review has changed me and will go for it.

  19. @Joy Forever: No, it’s not just the Telegraph, but in Calcutta I think it’s the worst offender. The Statesman is too staid (not to mention last on the scene 🙂 ) and TOI too busy trying to figure out what the ‘happening’ spots are. Hardly anybody reads HT. And Asian Age doesn’t much care.

  20. Thank goodness one of the Hollywood hacks didn’t direct this movie!

    Can you imagine – “United 93 – The Smackdown”. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Michael Bay?

    Makes the skin crawl doesn’t it?

  21. @Suyog: Indeed he is very much in control of the narrative.

    @Varsha: Vultures of human misery.

    @Sue: No kidding? For example, that engineer’s widow actually asked the reporter to take her picture wailing ?

    @Anil: I dont think it is ever too soon for the truth.

    @SEV: Point there.

    @Bongopondit: Indeed it is.

    @Shri: Kaisa mahaul…speechless !

    @Bonatellis: Indeed. Let’s not even go there.

    @Joy Forever: Perhaps they do.

    @e-Swami and Yourfan: Thank you

    @Territorial male, Maniman: Please do see this movie.

    @Keith: Yes glad that someone this good made it.

    @John Walt: Shall remember that.

    @Vasabjit: Rituporno needs some “porno”—otherwise he has no incentive to make a movie. Pity because Utsav was such a nice movie.

    @Varsha: And so we are.

    @Shan: That was what my fear was: Armageddon on a plane. These two guys made a hash out of a topic like “Pearl Harbour”.

  22. I disagree that making a movie on ‘grief’ is wrong !!

    By your logic, Titanic is an immoral movie, so is ‘Troy’ and so are all those made on the Second World War. Isn’t it important to document important moments in History – whether they are aggrieving or merry in their outlook is a different thing altogether.

    9/11 is an important historical milestone and of someone is trying to record it / dramatize it in form of a movie – there is no reason to criticise it only on the premise that it was a grieve experience.

    I would agree with your older post – https://greatbong.net/2005/03/24/you-want-to-buy-my-tears/ – where you talk about media and people publicising grief is wrong – but a movie and real life are completely different things.

    It is distracting to see so many commentors getting carried away by your clever (mis)use of an old post for justifying a completely unrelated event.

  23. @Nikhil: Ahem.

    1. Titanic is about a fictitious couple. As to the very “real” people who died on the Titanic it can be expected that in 1998 their wives or parents are not alive so that seeing promos of the movie on TV will not be expected to open old wounds. Ditto for “Troy”.
    However the people whose lives were affected by the events in 2001 are all very much alive and there is something despicable about a movie that is made to profit from their grief.

    However U93 is not that kind of movie. It does not try to twist our lachrymal glands by well-studied cinematic devices and instead talks about something totally different. It tries to document history (more specifically, the indomitable struggle between individuals that drive history) and not sell tragedy.
    And that’s my point. Where you found “misuse” is of course beyond me.

  24. True, greatbong. Movies like pearl harbor and many others have been made to make quick bucks which start with connected love stories and deviate from the core tragedy but united 93 is apart, it truly reflects the trauma people faced during the catastrophic event.

    One more point, why did just united 93 mission fail why not rest, may be people got enough time to cool off from the initial trauma and gather some courage which was possible with united 93 whearas in other cases the reaction time was less.

  25. @Gaurav,

    The other plane’s passengers thought that they were in the middle of a hijacking—the hijackers were going to take the plane somewhere and make demands. So they sat and went to their doom. U93 was the last plane to be hijacked and when the passengers called home from abroad the flight, they were told that 2 planes had flown into the WTC. And then they knew that the hijackers had no desire to negotiate. So they fought.

  26. Greatbong, I don’t know about the engineer’s widow per se, but I do know that the dacoity my journo friend and I were discussing did feature volunteered photographs of the family crying. And he said it was fairly common and you know something? I don’t disbelieve him.

    The discussion of the B’lore riots at http://www.thebagchi.blogspot.com (The Marauder’s Map) was about the same sort of psyche, I suppose.

  27. I’ve heard so much about this one that I cant wait to see it now. Its great to see Greengrass finally establishing himslef so well in Hollywood. The signs were already there.

  28. I watched a bittorrent download DVD rip of this over the weekend- one of those theater shot ones where you can see people’s heads bobbing about- but after a while it didn’t matter what the print was like. This movie fuckin rocks. And for all the reasons you say it do.

    I was waiting for the inevitable heroic stewardess, the God Bless America chants as the passengers try to bring down the hijackers, the love affair that blooms between the brave ex-pilot and the woman on his left…but it never happened. All that happened, in stark, unemotional real time, was one of the best hijack movies ever to emerge from Bollywood. I can never now watch Passenger 57 with a straight face, sorry Wesley.

    Also, it made me cry, and few movies ever do, especially barely even trying.

  29. Still me….

    Kinda makes you wish for a Border remake without the jingoism- “Sandese aa-tay hai” and all that crap- dun it? :)))

  30. this “how do you feel” journalism sucks. saw it on full display while following up on the engineer’s killing… the tv cameras were trained at the wailing family… sadly, the family was just too naive to have shut the door on the media. wish they had!

  31. the family members sharing their greif on the television can be seen as a sickening attempt by the channel to increase their trp ratings but if u look at the glass half full you will see what the victims had to go through… that day and are still going through. Innocent american citizens paid a prise for something they had not done.

  32. The movie released here on Friday, and I saw it today. Have to say, your review is BANG on target. I agree with every single word you’ve said. I am hoping you wont mind if I link your review. Thanks! 🙂

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