Filmmakers can control a great deal concerning their pictures -- the story, cast, budget, length, etc. -- but are at the whim of bad luck, competition or, rarely enough, unimaginable developments that affect their entire potential audience. Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001, filmmakers and the studios were in a quandary about when or whether to release their latest movies, particularly if any part of them somehow dealt with any corresponding part of that fateful day.
The biggest issue was how soon they would try to resume some semblance of "normalcy" as well as trying to gauge public reaction to that (especially if they'd be seen or portrayed as being insensitive about offering up entertainment). Now that nearly five years have passed, the question has switched to when one can release a film specifically about the actual event. While there have been countless new stories and some documentaries, they're considered newsworthy, while a movie would, well, possibly be viewed as a crass cashing in on the tragedy.
Well, despite the reported outcry of "too soon" by some moviegoers recently seeing the trailer for one such film, the temporal answer would seem to be "now." With the recent A&E docudrama "Flight 93" scoring high ratings and Oliver Stone's higher profile "World Trade Center" still in the wings, the film of the moment is "United 93." And what a picture it is, a harrowing, disturbing, moving and completely engaging, edge of your seat dramatic thriller that's easily the best of 2006 so far. Studios big and small will be hard pressed to deliver anything more powerful or brilliantly made.
Focusing on the flight of the same name, this recreation of the fateful trip tells the story of those onboard the airliner -- the crew, passengers and hijackers -- as well as those on the ground (specifically the FAA officials, flight controllers and military personnel) as they react to and try to figure out what's occurring.
For those worried that the filmmakers would sensationalize the event (and thus both trivialize and in some way distort the truth for the sake of "entertainment"), you can rest assured that's not the case. And most of that can be attributed to director Paul Greengrass who showed a lot of similar respect and reverence to the true life story of the 1972 massacre of Northern Ireland civil rights marchers in the equally riveting, moving and disturbing "Bloody Sunday."
Shooting the film in what seems to be real time (or at least something approximating it to a believable degree), Greengrass -- who works from his own script -- delivers a picture that's akin to the most effective "you are there" documentary you've probably ever seen. With little to no back-story for any of the characters -- most of whom are never even identified by name -- we essentially become another passenger or at least a witness on the doomed flight.
And we're also there in the air traffic control facilities and FAA headquarters feeling the same growing frustration, tension and dread as those men and women try to figure out and then cope with the unfolding events. Greengrass even goes an additional step by having some of the real-life people playing themselves in those scenes, a move that adds yet another level of complexity to the proceedings.
The masterful thing that Greengrass demonstrates, however, is that one can create a completely engrossing film without all of the usual Hollywood trappings. There's no "getting to know" the character moments that usually begin such films (we're shown what amounts to a variety of "day in the life" snippets regarding the various characters).
Similarly, there's no overwrought or heavily composed soundtrack to pump up the emotion via some artificial means (instead there's just a subdued but foreboding score that creeps under your skin, much like the overall effort). The film is raw, seemingly pure of artifice and nothing short of emotionally devastating. In short, it's the epitome of highly efficient, tightly woven storytelling on its most basic level, a fact that's even more apparent since we basically know what's going to happen and how the story will end.
Of course, there's the unavoidable question of whether viewers -- particularly Americans and especially those directly impacted by 9/11 -- will bring so much emotional baggage to the film that one won't be able to see the forest for the trees. In other words, how will someone born today or in ten or twenty years react to the film?
After all, generations born after the sinking of the Titanic, the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy don't and can't have the same gut reaction to those who lived through those times. Only time will tell regarding this film, but there's no denying its temporal proximity to the actual event (which is obviously shorter than any films dealing with any of the preceding) will have a major impact on public and critical reaction.
Even so, the deft storytelling, the solid and emotionally engaging performances from both the real people and the no-name cast (a smart move on the filmmaker's part), and most everything else about it make the highly reverential "United 93" one of the most powerful films of this or most any year of recent memory. It rates as an 8 out of 10.