Blu-ray Review: United 93

People usually remember where they were and what they were doing at the time of an earthshaking event. It’s likely you remember for September 11, 2001. I know I do.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I was at home enjoying the weather on my back deck. Suddenly, a neighbor called to say I should turn on the TV (something she knows I seldom do until after sunset). When I saw the image of black smoke billowing from the shattered offices of the first Twin Tower, I initially thought it was just a promotional ploy for a new movie. Surely, if it was real, it was only a freak accident. When the second tower was hit, all thoughts of accidents were squashed; we were under attack.

In his 2006 film United 93, director Paul Greengrass perfectly captures the initial reactions of the air-traffic controllers. One of them hears what he thinks is a hijack recording, and he passes the information on to another controller — who does a double take. No one wants to connect the dots. Later, peering out of their own tower, controllers see the second impact at the World Trade Center in the distance. The previous look of disbelief on their faces turns into shock.

Greengrass continues to tell the story from the perspective of the controllers, but he also takes us into the cabin and the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 — the only hijacked plane on 9/11 that wouldn’t reach its target, plummeting instead into a Pennsylvania field. We still don’t know the exact details and probably never will, but apparently the plane crashed when passengers were attempting to overpower the hijackers. It’s likely that the plane was meant to take out a government building in Washington, D.C. Many observers think it was the Capitol building, and in this movie, the terrorist pilot clips a picture of the Capitol in front of him for reference. But the mission was thwarted, making extraordinary heroes out of ordinary passengers.

Although I remember that day as Technicolor perfect, Greengrass makes it steely and blue as well as a little washed out. If you’ve seen his Jason Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum), you’ll know what to expect. Accordingly, the 2.35:1 picture on Blu-ray retains the film’s desaturated, occasionally grainy look. Consider, too, that nearly the entire movie was shot with handheld cameras for a documentary feel. Still, detail is very good, helping many scenes achieve a genuine three-dimensional appearance.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound draws you into the drama. It can be difficult to separate music from Foley elements, given the unusual percussion effects on the soundtrack. Some of these go low enough to tease your subwoofer into action. Meanwhile, your surrounds will get plenty of work from the ambience employed in just about every scene.

The extras can be rough going, in emotional terms. One shows some of the actors going to visit surviving family members of those killed, and the bonding is extremely moving. (At several points, I felt as if I was eavesdropping — as if I shouldn’t be viewing or intruding.) Another featurette, the best one, offers interviews with air-traffic controllers who were working on 9/11. A shorter piece discusses the permanent memorial that is being built in the Pennsylvania field.

We can be thankful that United 93 isn’t an Airport movie. Rather, it’s a superbly constructed film whose little-known actors — together with some actual flight controllers — bring a high degree of realism, with no grandstanding. It’s so real, in fact, that I was deeply affected watching it, and I’m not sure I could watch it again. Ask me on the 20th anniversary.