Bright Lights Film Journal

UNITED 93 – Who’s Kidding Whom?

Paul Greengrass’s United 93 has been widely praised for its faux realistic style and its purportedly apolitical look at a 9/11-related event.

There’s nothing new about this kind of faux realism (wobbly camera, grainy film that simulates the look of news footage). You can see it in Dr. Strangelove in the scenes involving the bomber plane and the troops. Probably the best example, combining the news footage look with the use of non-professional actors throughout the entire film, is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965).

A particularly irritating trick that United 93 adds to the mix is the indecisive zoom – the zoom that jerkily starts, then stops, as though the cameraman forgot what he wanted to zoom in on. United 93 simulates the look of amateur home movie footage, as if one or more tourists on the plane were filming all the action with camcorders. However, since we never see any passengers with camcorders, there is nothing within the film to justify the look. While the style seems to work for most viewers most of the time, it gave me a headache. As far as this viewer is concerned, the long mobile takes and spatial integrity of Children of Men are a far better way to involve the audience in the action.

United 93 also purports to show what it shows objectively and without any political agenda. Who’s kidding whom? The film asks us to identify with a group of ordinary Americans who rise as one to destroy a handful of swarthy Muslim villains. You may or may not believe that what the film shows is the truth (some don’t). You may or may not be moved by it (many are). But to pretend that United 93 is apolitical is disingenuous in the extreme.

ADDENDUM 1/12/07: For another dissenting opinion (which I read after I wrote the above), see Reverse Shot’s 11 Offenses of 2006.