Three steps before entering the theater to see "United 93," my sandal broke. At the time I was pretty upset because this meant I had to walk around downtown D.C. with a limp or with one shoe off. After the movie, I took both shoes off and walked quietly back to my car.
I tell this story because "United 93" is so powerful that in only 111 minutes it can fully put every aspect of life into perspective. If there is a right way to make a 9/11 movie — and I'm not sure there is — then "United 93" pulls it off.
Shot in real time from the plane taking off to abrupt ending of its eventual crash, "United 93" tells what is possibly one of the most moving stories of heroism in recent memory — the story of the members of United Flight 93, who rushed terrorists that had taken their plane hostage. Heroes who saved the nation's capitol and thousands of lives while sacrificing their own.
What takes the movie beyond normal cinematic fare, other than the subject matter, is how it captures the emotions, struggles and shock of Sept. 11 by simply being there. Director Paul Greengrass brilliantly opted for a documentary feel — you are in the room with the military as they scramble to respond, or standing with air traffic controllers as they desperately try to clear the skies over America.
Greengrass also did his research. Phone conversations are down to exact words, and every actor studied the person they were portraying, living or dead. Families of the members of the flight were brought in to consult.
The actors themselves are of stunning caliber. There are no big names here, as Greengrass did not want anything to take away from the focus of the passengers joining together. No one person on the plane is a hero, no one is glorified over the rest and no one is made to seem special. This focus is what makes the film so real and striking — the fact that the men and women on the plane could have been any of us.
Most surprising is the portrayal of the terrorists. While the temptation to show them as crazed monsters frothing at the mouth was probably there, but Greengrass developed them as living, breathing people, too. They are full of fear as they take over the plane, clearly brainwashed by religious zeal but determined to act. Humanizing those who committed such terrible acts is incredibly difficult, but in a film where questions of life and humanity are the main subjects it is possibly one of the most important factors.
"United 93" pulls no punches. We are there until the crash, we are angered by the military's ineptness, we are vexed by the fact that none of the organizations can talk to each other and save lives. But most of all we are inspired that in the matter of 90 minutes, total strangers can join together and become heroes.
Broken sandals don't seem to matter anymore.