Tuesday, 10 January 2012

"United 93". A Review Of The 2006 Movie Now On A 2011 BLU RAY.

"…I'm Thinking Of You…"

I can remember the first time I saw "United 93" - I was stunned. Released less than five years after the events of September 11, 2001 - the wounds were still raw. Yet as a film it didn't just 'work' - it was brutal, stark and painfully honest - and all the more admirable for it.

Written and Directed by PAUL GREENGRASS - it had the most difficult material in the world to deal with - fraught with all sorts of depiction dangers and accusations of a crass cash-in. And yet it succeeded on every level. Come the last 15 minutes - your hurt is pretty much uncontrollable and the tears are flowing for real. I was truly moved.

And now on the 10th Anniversary of the event (Sept 2011) - it arrives on BLU RAY. And I'm glad to say it boasts a proper upgrade in picture quality and 'bonus material' which is not just respectful - but equal in power to the movie itself...

It opens with four men in an apartment block. Dressed like a Middle Eastern businessman, the leader of the group squints underneath his immaculately clean reading glasses. But Ziad Jarrah is nervous - and as he breathily chants prayers over his Koran - even seems troubled. But a face that has no such qualms interrupts Ziad. It's Ahmed Al Haznawi - who will later hold the flight at bay with a knife he's smuggled into his belt. The al-Qaeda radical fixes Ziad with a steely gaze and says - "It's time."

And so begins their infamous journey - driving to the airport - parking their cars - checking-in with minimal luggage - getting through the security monitors - and eventually boarding "United 93" - an early-morning non-stop flight from Newark International to San Francisco. Hours later - 33 passengers and 7 flight crew are fighting back - desperately trying to retake the cockpit from Ziad and Ahmed. But despite their valiant efforts - the Boeing 757 nosedives into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 am. And of the four aircraft hijacked and sacrificed that horrible day, it was the only one 'not' to reach Osama Bin Laden's presumed target (The White House, Washington DC).

Why does "United 93" work? First up - Greengrass begins with the everyday - the 'ordinary'. In the waiting area - Thomas Burnett makes a business call as he eyes his polished shoes - while a dehydrated Nicole Miller applies lip-gloss once on board. Equally beautiful and seated for take-off, hostess Cee Cee Lyles regrets having not brought enough magazines for her to read on a 5-hour long haul flight - while passengers Patrick Driscoll and his friend William Cashman (70 and 60) plan a hiking holiday to Yosemite National Park from a colour brochure. Hilda Marcin asks politely for a glass of water so she can swallow her medication with her breakfast - while a man opens his laptop on the seat rest in front of him with a relaxed air. A 20-year old Deora Bodley is trying to do just that - she fixes a makeshift pillow on the headrest of her seat - and leaving her headphones in - tries to get some shut-eye. And up in the cockpit while on autopilot - First Officer LeRoy Homer talks to Captain Jason Dahl as they eat their meals from plastic trays about a London holiday he's planning for his wife and their new 11-month old baby. Every scene is humdrum - and of course real - and therefore incredibly unsettling...

Second is the cast. There are no big names in the lead roles (some of the actors are vaguely familiar like Christian Clemenson from "Boston Legal" but most are not). Greengrass then combines their largely unknown faces with real people who were actually there on the day - Ben Sliney of Herndon Air-Traffic Control, Thomas Roberts of Boston ATC, Curt Applejack of New York ATC and Major John Fox heads up the military. Along with other staff members, the effect is like watching the events unfold in front of you - but in real-time.

The music by JOHN POWELL is also used sparingly - but when it's applied - it packs either an incredibly sinister punch or ups your pulse-rate big time.

Then there's the astonishing editing. The camera moves behind people's heads as they run down corridors - we get momentary glimpses of worried faces through gaps in clothing - there's close-ups on sweating foreheads which then in turn pull back onto disbelieving faces. There's side profiles of personnel constantly making and answering phonecalls - desperately trying to get a grip on the escalating panic. Speech quickens as the chaos escalates - and it all ratchets up the tension to the nines. So when the horror finally comes - it's devastating.

The first sign of trouble is American Airlines Flight 11, which stops responding to hails from Air-Traffic Control and then disappears off radar over New York (it's gone into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre). Then an officer examines a tape of what was transmitted from the cockpit - he works out that the word 'planes' is used and not 'plane' - as in plural. With 4000 aircraft in the sky - their terror is palpable. Then it gets really ugly. The second of the hijacked aircraft (United 175) finally appears on the New York skyline outside their observation tower. But instead of making an emergency landing - and as they watch - it flies at escalated speed and smashes directly into the South Tower - bursting into flames. Now both buildings are on fire. The moment of silent disbelief that follows in the Control Room is heart-stopping.

The script is fast and punchy too. Wisely Greengrass avoided conspiracy theories in his construction but did include factual details. The American military's Airforce NORAD was conducting a drill on that morning (of all mornings) and was informed by the FAA of the hijackings. At 08:46 a.m. they scrambled four F-15 fighter planes from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts to enter New York airspace, but politicians denied them 'engage' orders. Controversy has raged ever since. But again, Greengrass doesn't discuss this. He just shows the pandemonium at every level of authority while at the same time concentrating on what matters - the 'people' - and especially their eventual bravery - when they realized they weren't going to be any negotiations and they had to stop fanatics killing even more innocents.

Some words now on the bonus material - the 2006 UK single DVD had 3 'Extras' - "United 93: The Families And The Film" (60-minutes), a feature-length commentary by Paul Greengrass and "Memorial Pages" - passengers and crew remembered with 40 written biographies. However, an American 2 DVD set put out in 2007 provided more. Added on were - "Flight 93 National Memorial", "Chasing Planes - Witnesses To 9/11" and "Twin Towers". This BLU RAY has all 6 features. The "Families" documentary in particular is extraordinary - where the actors meet the families with often beautiful results. Those who've lost someone are permanently hurting people - and acknowledgement/discussion of this by anyone other than the authorities (who have to appear to care) is hugely cathartic. In between the interviews are a lot of family photos and home movies - so be prepared for sadness as well as celebration.

To sum up - given the ultra-sensitivity of the material - "United 93" is a fantastic film and a major achievement for all involved. It's also a worthy reissue on BLU RAY with well thought-out and fitting extras that both enhance and inform.

I just wish it hadn't taken so many lost lives to produce something of worth and beauty. May they rest in peace...

BLU RAY Specifications:
ASPECT: 1080p High Definition Widescreen 2.35:1
AUDIO: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French, Canadian French, German, Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Italian, Japanese DTS 5.1
SUBTITLES: English SDH, French, Canadian French, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin Amer4ican Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Greek, Traditional Mandarin

PS: as an aside – but related to 9/11…
If the link below doesn't work, I urge to check out a video on YouTube called "Regret" by THE BLUE NILE. Apparently collated and posted by a fan that wanted to say something about the atrocity on its 10th Anniversary - the video uses one of this superlative Scottish band’s lesser-known tunes - "Regret". The song originally turned up as a UK non-album B-side to the 12" single of the "Tinseltown In The Rain" from 1984 on Linn Records. It's only LP/CD appearance to my knowledge is a 1991 compilation called "The Tree And The Bird And The Fish And The Bell – Glasgow Songs By Glasgow Artists". It's hard to find but worth hunting down.

"Regret" is played against a backdrop of black and white images from that tragic event. Recorded years before in a country some 6000 miles away (and of course about something entirely different) it somehow fits perfectly - both musically and lyrically. Words from it title this review.

More to the point (and I'll openly admit to this) – it moved me to tears.

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