There are undoubtedly those who will dismiss this film as patriotic malarkey due to its subject matter: the passengers on the fourth hijacked airliner on September 11, 2001, who rose up against their captors before the plane could be crashed into whatever unknown target it was aiming for. This attitude reflects America's divisiveness over the government's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and ignores the primal horror and confusion that gripped the country that day, and the passengers of United 93 even more so.
Though we've now had several years to form our opinions, theories, and suspicions about everything that happened on 9/11, as well as the events that transpired before and afterwards, United 93 takes us on a purely visceral and emotional journey back to that very morning. Writer/director Greengrass fills in the blanks with educated guesses – he presumes the plane was headed towards the Capitol Building in Washington; he debunks the theory that military fighter jets actually destroyed the plane in midair – as he maintains a tight, tense, ultimately objective approach to the events.
Although the story's already been used as fodder for two TV movies, what sets this film apart is Greengrass's decision to include lengthy scenes with the FAA and the military, as they react to the hair-raising drama (the irony being that none of the personnel was even aware that flight 93 had been hijacked until it crashed into Pennsylvania farmland). With several military and government figures playing themselves, and the rest of the cast a collection of ordinary-looking unknowns, the film gains an extra layer of authenticity that makes for a frightening, it-could-happen-to-you experience.
I think the very point of the film is to show that the rebellious passengers on flight 93 weren't larger-than-life heroes but regular joes who, left with no choices, launched a brave if desperate attack upon their hijackers in order to keep the plane from crashing. (One of the passengers was a small craft pilot; the apparent idea was to get him into the cockpit in order to land it safely.)
Greengrass even shows his hijackers not as mustache-twirling arch-villains but as nervous, idealistic young men – in fact, it is the noticeable youth of these terrorists (or at least the actors playing them) that struck me the most. You do grow to hate them, and there is a sense of satisfaction when the passengers rise up against them, but you can't blame Greengrass if he wants to deliver a little uplift before the inevitable moment of doom.
Still and all, there remains nothing sentimental or politically-motivated about this film. This isn't "Why We Fight". Greengrass's goal is to put you in the moment, and that makes United 93 a unique and gut-wrenching film. (Indeed, it's so intense that it may inspire certain audience members to avoid flying for a while.) It's not fun, and I don't want to see it again, but it put me back in touch with a heartbreaking moment in history that has become all too politicized in the years since it unfolded.