No matter how well-made and respectful Paul Greengrass' United 93 is, there are people who will never see it, and even those who are curious may stay away simply because reliving a national tragedy is not on most people's lists of the best way to spend eight bucks and their Saturday night. Even films about the Holocaust (Schindler's List), or genocide in other countries (Hotel Rwanda), tragedies on a much larger scale than what happened on September 11, 2001, are easier for American moviegoers to digest because there's a sense of distance to them.
That's not the case with United 93, and thus writer-director Greengrass does everything he can to strip away the storytelling elements that filmmakers typically add to true stories to make them more than collections of facts—he can't possibly be accused of manipulation or sensationalism. While it makes his film generally unobjectionable, it also keeps it in the realm of a collection of facts, with only the occasional logical conjecture thrown in to fill in the gaps. If you followed the news on 9/11, or have read or seen anything about that day in the last few years, United 93 isn't going to give you a new perspective on the events, in a way because it doesn't have any perspective at all. Like Greengrass' 2002 docudrama, Bloody Sunday, which depicted the events surrounding a 1972 civil-rights protest in Ireland that turned deadly, United 93 aspires to a fly-on-the-wall, documentary feel, sacrificing expository details to embrace the confusion and chaos surrounding a tragedy.
The film really tells two stories, spending nearly equal time following the passengers on United Airlines flight 93, which was hijacked and eventually went down in a Pennsylvania field, and the ground personnel in various civilian and military air-traffic-control offices. By expanding his scope beyond the plane, Greengrass is able to provide a context missing from A&E's recent made-for-TV movie, Flight 93, which had only a handful of scenes with ground crews and spent most of its time milking every possible tear out of the emotional farewells between the doomed passengers and their loved ones on the ground.
Greengrass keeps such hokum to a minimum, conveying the gravity of the situation and the difficulty of telling your family you are most likely about to die without exploiting the phone calls, which are the easiest way for the film to create an emotional reaction. Instead, he highlights the confusion, both on the ground and in the air, that marked the day, illustrating the communication gaps that prevented people from taking action quickly.
His cast of mostly unknown actors (including FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney as himself) give generally understated performances, doing little to draw attention to themselves. In its straightforward recounting of events, United 93 is less like a movie than a memorial. And like another controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, it is something that, for many, will be more about having the experience and paying tribute to the fallen than about going to the movies. In that sense, Greengrass has created an almost masochistic ritual that is hard to appreciate in a traditional cinematic way.
At the same time, his technique is undeniably effective, and Greengrass mostly realizes his intent to come as close as possible to depicting what we might have seen had there been cameras following the action on that momentous day. It's hard to recommend seeing United 93 for any of the usual reasons, and it doesn't seem to have much of a purpose other than to reiterate, This happened. But for those who might need (or want) a reminder, it serves that purpose thoroughly and admirably.