Greengrass could have screwed up this film in sundry ways, could have sensationalized and cheapened what happened on Flight 93. But he gets everything almost exactly right. As much as possible, he sticks to what is known and reveals developments as they unfolded on the day the series of horrors took place. Much of the film's tension arises not directly from what Greengrass depicts but from what we know is about to happen. I found myself agonizing over a series of mundane events. When the gate agent closed the plane's door, I couldn't help but flinch that it would never open again. Because there is so much tension inherent to the material, Greengrass eschews many established film techniques. He infrequently employs musical cues, and he wisely chose to use, instead of a lineup of stars, a cast of unknowns, people with average faces who are appropriate for everyday passengers about to be summoned to act in extraordinary circumstances.
Greengrass does, however, exercise the cross-cutting strategy that is standard to thrillers. Our focus is inside the cabins of Flight 93, but Greengrass takes us to several air-traffic-control locations, to a military air defense base and to the Federal Aviation Agency where National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) tries to make sense of the bewildering series of unprecedented events. In case we have forgotten, United 93 makes clear how extensively our reactions were ruled by confusion and surrendered to chaos. Planes are lost off radar. Officials suspect the hijacking of planes that haven't been. Information sent to pilots, such as those on Flight 93, doesn't provide a clear warning. Fighter jets fly off in the wrong direction; others take off unarmed, giving rise to talk of having them crash into hijacked plans.
Though they don't know which planes have been hijacked and which have not, the military wants permission to shoot down commercial jets, but only the president can grant them permission, and the president, ultimately fleeing himself aboard Air Force One, can't be reached. But before it's too late, huddled together in the back of the plane, talking on air and cell phones, the passengers learn about the WTC and the Pentagon and figure their only chance is to retake the plane. In a scene of heartbreaking truth, they contact their family members to speak their love and say goodbye. And then they make their rush, men and women, young and not so young, together. Their end is in fire. And it is never clear that they entirely understand what their struggle saves. But the fact of their struggle, their willingness to respond, is a challenge to all of us who survive them.
Some controversy has arisen over the way Greengrass chose to begin this film, with the highjackers as they dress for their last day, pray, read the Koran and chant over its verses. Some viewers have found this a misguided attempt at cultural and political "balance" that proves disrespectful of the victims. I reacted differently. I found these early passages infuriatingly sad, the preparations of presumably intelligent men to commit mass murder in the name of God. I am a Christian believer who nonetheless presumes that the vastness of a benevolent God affords many ways to be known by so limited creatures as our various human selves. But no God worth worshipping condones, much less summons, the taking of innocent life. Yet history is so gorged with the cruel acts of men who think they have God's blessing to shed the blood of others that I find myself ever more attracted to John Lennon's immortal plea: "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too."