A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this film isn't for younger kids. Upsetting and provocative, it raises sophisticated questions about the construction of history and uses of memory. The movie includes frequent cuts that create tension and link scenes in the jet and air traffic control, military, and the FAA centers. The hijackers betray nervousness but remain resolute in pursuing what they see as their destiny. Television images of the second plane hitting the WTC recall 9/11 as most viewers experienced it. The final assault by passengers on the hijackers is particularly grim and violent, with ragged images and blood splattering on a wall. Some strong language.
What's the story?
UNITED 93 offers what director Paul Greengrass calls a "possible truth" regarding on the fateful 9/11 flight, beginning with the pre-flight preparations of the hijackers and the passengers as well as the activity in the air traffic control towers. Ben Sliney (who plays himself), on his first day as director of the Federal Aviation Administration's operations, sets to reorganizing the office. When the first plane hits the World Trade Center, no one can imagine it's deliberate. The film cuts to TV monitors showing CNN's coverage of the attack, with reporters repeating that they don't know what's going on. On the flight 93, the hijackers take control of the plane and the passengers, who place calls to loved ones via the on-plane telephones, learn of the World Trade Center attacks and coordinate a strike against the hijackers.
Is it any good?
Difficult and provocative, United 93 is an experience that is at once abstract, visceral, and sometimes overwhelmingly immediate. In reframing the event in and as TV images, the way so many people experienced it on 9/11, the film makes a devastating appeal to collective and individual memories. It also shapes those memories, framing them with Ben Sliney making decisions when no one else would (closing down all air space). In its fitful remembering, United 93 raises important questions (however reverentially) about the making of history. Who decides "what happened"? What is omitted? And how does any one point of view prevail over another? In creating identifiable heroes -- say, Todd Beamer (played here by David Alan Basche) or Thomas E. Burnett (Christian Clemenson), names that have circulated in the ever-expanding history/mythology mix of 9/11 -- the movie leaves other participants less visible.
The effort to fight back, the desperation and the fear, are all too visible, in shards more than coherent images. Close-ups show frantic and determined faces, praying, calling loved ones, setting their jaws in determination to "do something." Though no one can know exactly "what happened," this reimagining allows viewers to think the best of United 93's heroes. Director Paul Greenrass met with family members to secure their blessing as well as their input: "It tells a story," they say, "that needs to be told." This is no doubt true, though what that story is may be less clear. In this sense, it is like most history, not official, not even accurate, but essential.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the uses of representing such tragedy and trauma: How do stories and images help us work through emotional wounds? How important is historical accuracy in a fictionalized feature film? How does the movie portray the hijackers, so that you see their nervousness and dedication, and not just cartoonish, one-dimensional "evil"? How do the many, mostly nameless, passengers appear heroic in ways that challenge movie conventions?
- In theaters: April 28, 2006
- On DVD or streaming: September 5, 2006
- Cast: David Alan Basche, Khalid Abdalla, Susan Blommaert
- Director: Paul Greengrass
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence.
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