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United 93

    On controversy and great filmmaking

“United 93” could have easily been gratuitous, or cheesy, or exploitative. It is none of these things. If you feel ready to confront the tragedy of the hijacked flight, and the general bloodbath of September 11th, 2001 on the big screen, this is not a film to miss.

At first, I was opposed to the fact that this picture was even made. I began to change my mind when I learned that director Paul Greengrass engaged the victims’ families in attempting to create an accurate portrayal of their loved ones. A few days before opening night, I felt ready to see this movie. In fact, I craved it – the film, or rather the idea of it, was like a bruise I could not stop touching.

“United 93” attempts to chronicle the events that took place on board the hijacked plane out of Newark, before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field leaving no survivors. The film paints a terrifying, gruesomely noble picture. By the end of it all, you may find yourself cheering on the passengers as they grab one hijacker by the throat, even if you’re an avowed pacifist like I am. The director does not attempt to glorify the violence that takes place onboard the plane, but he obviously believes that the passengers of United Flight 93 probably did the best they could with the cards that fate dealt them.

The hour before the hijackers spring into action is excruciating. The film cuts away from the plane and into the many governmental offices attempting to deal with the chaos that erupts after the first plane hits the World Trade Center. The casual chatter of the doomed passengers, the whispered prayers of the hijackers, and the growing desperation of air-traffic controllers and military and FAA officials makes for a tense concoction. The outcome of the day’s events is already stamped on your heart, and yet the poor organ still beats wildly.

The performances of the relatively obscure actors, some of whom are affiliated with the airline industry in real life, are nearly flawless. In a particularly brilliant touch, a former top FAA official, Ben Sliney plays himself. September 11th, 2001 was Sliney’s first day on the job as manager.

Meanwhile, Jamie Harding is chilling as baby-faced hijacker Ahmed al Nami; here he’s the sort of kid I’d normally turn my head for if I spotted him walking by, and his channeling of both viciousness and youthful eagerness will stay with me for a long time. Peter Hermann portrays passenger Jeremy Glick with unaffected dignity, both brave and tearful, anguish etched into the lines of his frowning face. Trish Gates is gut-wrenching as flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw. Khalid Abdalla’s portrayal of hijacker Ziad Jarrah is both humanizing and spine-tingling; a hurried “I love you,” spoken into his mobile phone in German shortly before the flight’s departure stands in stark contrast with him giving the go-ahead to slit a defenseless flight attendant’s throat.

“United 93” offers no easy answers or solutions. It is the most expertly-made and the least comforting film I have seen in a long time. At its heart is the eternal conundrum of human nature, and its capacity to contain love and hatred in the same tight, vulnerable space.

Whether you view the passengers of United Flight 93 as heroes, victims, or even “little Eichmanns,” the power of this film cannot be denied. As committed to non-violence as I am, I could have easily imagined myself digging my nails into Ziad Jarrah’s neck had I been placed in this position on that day. The passengers did what they had to do, and may they rest in peace, their memory preserved. The questions that face the living in this post-9/11 world, meanwhile, are as difficult as ever, Greengrass seems to suggest.

For us, peace is a long way off.

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Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She’s the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.