Review of United 93

by Roger Alford

I had the opportunity to see United 93 over the weekend. Resist the doubters and go see this movie. It is more than worth the price of admission. It achieves one of its principal goals, which was to address the question, “What should be our response to terrorism?” In the words of Director Paul Greengrass, “the terrible dilemma those passengers faced is the same we have been struggling with ever since. Do we sit passively and hope this all turns out okay? Or do we fight back and strike at them before they strike at us? And what will be the consequences if we do?”

Predictably, the movie has its naysayers. One amateur critic argued that none of the passengers are portrayed as cowardly. Such criticism is just silly. The movie offered more than its share of passenger tears and fears, mixed with remarkable courage. Another well-known critic’s bizarre review in the New York Times uses the movie as an opportunity to attack the war in Iraq. He laments that the terrorists are not front and center in the public mind and that their fame was so fleeting. (Fortunately, the New York Times has a real review of the actual movie here.) But the overwhelming majority of reviews have been quite favorable. Just go to for details. It uses a weighted average of the national reviews. Metacritic rates the movie a 90 out of 100, by far the highest score of any movie currently playing and one of the top 50 movies ever reviewed on Metacritic.

As you can read, the professional critics have near universal acclaim for this movie. Here are some of the words they express about the movie: “brilliant,” “momentous,” “superbly precise,” “haunting,” “inspiring,” “unmissable,” “viscerally upsetting,” “masterful,” “heartbreaking,” “terrific,” “one of the most powerful films I have ever seen,” and “the best movie I ever hated.”

My favorite characters in the movie were young, cocky Mark Bigham (played by Cheyenne Jackson) and the measured, methodical Tom Burnett (played by Christian Clemenson). You can read about their lives here by clicking on Memorials. Bigham was the kind of guy who literally jumped off cliffs in Hawaii, traveled around Europe, and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Ironically, on the morning of September 11, he was headed to a wedding of a Muslim friend in San Francisco. Tom Burnett was, according to his memorial, a bright, driven, and competitive man. He had an innate ability to gather information, assess situations, and react quickly to resolve them. Fate drew these two men to sit next to one another on United 93, and the movie nicely displays the combination of calculus and courage that led these and other passengers to plan their counterattack on the terrorists.

To be sure there are minor problems with the movie. In my view, it spends too much time on the air traffic controllers. The apparent purpose of this was to use their slow and methodic confusion as a proxy for our own confusion about just what hit us that morning. The movie also fails to deeply develop the characters of any of the terrorists. One character, Ziad Jarrah (played by Khalid Abdalla) is slightly more ambivalent about carrying out his death wish. But beyond that the movie brings us no closer to comprehending the fanaticism and hatred that motivates terrorists. Nor do we have even a glimpse of what the families on the other end of the phone conversations were experiencing. A portrayal of their pain would have resonated strongly with our own pain.

But there is far more good to say about this movie than bad. The passengers on that flight were genuine American heroes. They understood they were on a suicide flight and valiantly stood up to terror. Their message is our message: Do not fear. Do not be afraid. Some things are worth fighting. When death stares you in the face, respond with dignity and courage.

As it happens, the movie and the real transcript of United 93 were released in the same weeks, allowing art to be compared to life. You can read the final moments of their struggle here. Ignore if you can the last words of the terrorists (Allah is the Greatest! Allah is the Greatest!) and focus on the final and emphatic “no” of the passengers of United Flight 93:

In the cockpit. If we don’t we’ll die….
Roll it….
Ahh. Ahh. Ahh….
Shut them off. Shut them off….
Go. Go….
Move. Move….
Turn it up….
Down. Push, push, push, push, push….

One Response

  1. I saw the movie on opening weekend. Having lived through September 11 in DC, it was no small thing to watch the movie and I had been seriously inclined not to go. But a rather remarkable review by Bob Mondello made me realize that I should at least see it before I offered criticism.

    I agree with Roger that the movie was solid and its message was important. I was glad I went.

    But I have one reservation. I went with a Canadian friend, and we both couldn’t help remarking that the one person in the movie who suggested a pacificist approach was a European – and he was not exactly portrayed as a hero. I have no idea if that aspect of the film is historically accurate. But when I reminded my friend that the movie’s director, Paul Greengrass, is European, she wondered aloud whether Greengrass had sold-out in an effort to subliminally pitch to an anti-European sentiment in the USA. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t – maybe it was simply what passengers had recounted to their loved ones in their last minutes. But one wonders why there was a need to focus on the one European – and his one message in this way. Other passengers who were less involved had more context to them. What messages (sublilminal or otherwise) were the filmmakers intending to portray by this particular characterization of a European approach to terrorism?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.