Paul Greengrass

United 93 (2006)

United 93 (2006)

  • Born:  1955
  • Rank:  84
  • Score:  519.65
  • Awards:  BAFTA / LAFC / NSFC
  • Nominations:  Oscar / 2 BAFTA / BFCA
  • Feature Films:  6
  • Best:  United 93
  • Worst:  The Theory of Flight

Feature Films Ranked (haven’t seen Resurrected):

  1. United 93 – 2006
  2. The Bourne Ultimatum – 2007
  3. Bloody Sunday – 2002
  4. The Bourne Supremacy – 2004
  5. The Theory of Flight – 1998

Top 10 Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 2006 – 5th – United 93

For film buffs it is hard to imagine a comparison between Mike Leigh and Paul Greengrass, two directors whose style are almost polar opposites.  But they are both British directors who made one feature film early in their careers (Resurrected in 1989 for Greengrass, Bleak Moments in 1971 for Leigh), then spent long periods in British television before returning to film (9 years for Greengrass, 18 for Leigh) and finding feature film success and Oscar nominations.

The similarities pretty much end there.  Greengrass, while in television, found a brilliant documentary style that worked very well on Bloody Sunday, and the strength of that got him the second Bourne film when Matt Damon pushed for a new director.  Many people admire Bourne Supremacy, and it is a good film, but it was his decision to make United 93 and follow it up with the hyper kinetic (and brilliant) third Bourne film that really cemented him on this list.

His style should also work well for his upcoming films:  Green Zone (about Iraq), due later this year, They Walked In Sunlight (about Vietnam), due next year and the fourth Jason Bourne film.

United 93 – #6 film of 2006

What could have been gained by making this film at the time that Greengrass decided to make it?   When the first trailers were shown in theaters, people shouted “too soon” at the screen.  It had no stars, no entertainment value, nothing to make people watch it on screen.  And perhaps this was for the best.

Because Oliver Stone peopled his World Trade Center with name actors, you had to expect heroics.  And was he really going to cast Cage as someone who died?  He had to find someone extraordinary who was going to survive the film.  And oddly enough, the most compelling character in the film was the one who didn’t want his story told, the one who just wanted to do his job (the Michael Shannon character).

United 93 is a much more compelling film.  Not because of the story, though the story is the one bound to be remembered.  And let’s face it, it deserves to be remembered.  In the hazy news of that day (reports of car bombs in D.C., questions about what was going on with flights), when it became clear that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, another hijacked flight that had not made it to a target, I knew where it was headed.  That plane was headed for the Capital.  You can argue that the White House is the big target, but let’s face it, the White House isn’t a very big building and the Washington Monument is in the way.  The Capital is an extremely large building on top of a hill.  It’s an easy target.  Hell, Tom Clancy had already written about that very thing several years before.  And those people on that plane saved the lives of everyone in the Capital.  But as I said, that’s not what makes it such a compelling film.

The first smart thing that Greengrass did was to cast it with people that aren’t recognizable (some of the people at the FAA are the real people who lived through the day).  You don’t get distracted by thinking about the actors, or who will live.  We know all of these people are going to die.  It’s not Hollywood trickery.  It’s what really happened.

That’s the second smart thing.  This is what happened.  We don’t learn anything about anyone in the film.  We don’t know anything more about them then they would have learned sitting there.  This is 9/11, the most horrific day in American History the way it happened, the way it unfolded.  The people learn things, they are confused, they slowly realize what’s happening.  We don’t see the first plane crash because there is pretty much no footage of it.  It was only after cameras were focused on the towers and when they recorded the second plane that the world became aware of what was happening.

That’s the third smart thing.  This film focuses on what is going on with the planes until we pinpoint our focus on the actual flight United 93.  It looks at the FAA and the military, not at the people in New York as the events unfold.  Thus we see a version of the second plane that we are unused to:  a point of view of the air traffic controllers at the Newark airport looking out over the river as the plane flies across the sky into the south tower.

The controllers stand there in shock.  One is on the phone and he stops talking as that plane goes across the sky.  They seem to slowly realize what is happening and when the plane disappears into flame and smoke they stand there in shock.  It is 9:03 A.M. EST on September 11, 2001 and the world has reached a turning point.  That is the key moment in modern history, because if that second plane doesn’t hit everything else is different.  But they don’t know that.  They don’t know anything outside of that.  They won’t know what’s to come in the days and months and years ahead.

That’s the fourth smart thing.  This film does not take a side.  It does not attempt to make anything more of the events than the actual events themselves.  And perhaps it took a British director to do that.

This film is a brilliant film, a remarkable film that feels like a documentary, but in fact, does a much better job of presenting that day that most of the documentaries that have actually been made about the events.  I have seen the film three times and I can’t tell you for certain if any of the scenes are actual footage from that day or just re-enactments.  But I know that very few scenes in all of film history, in well over 5000 films, shakes me as much as the scene of the second plane flying across the sky.  And the look on the controllers faces as the world changes.