In a year devoid of memorable movies so far, here, then, is the early favorite for Best Picture. United 93 is a movie that exists solely within that moment, unfolding in near real time on the morning of September 11, 2001, like a short story written in the present tense. The movie begins with the terrorists praying and ends with flight United 93 plunging into the earth. The political context is left out, most characters are not given names, and the camera never pulls back to permit a lead actor to primp for Best Actor by delivering a speech to the swelling chords of a momentous soundtrack.
But for everyone who was lived through that day, such context is not necessary. The movie has the gravitational pull of a historical supernova, pulling from our memories every fact about that fateful morning. The suspense is Hitchcockian but in a unique way. The context we as the audience have and which the characters on-screen lack is that of real-life history. When Air Traffic Control fails to get a response from American Airlines flight 77, we know what has happened, but the air traffic controllers on screen remain calm. When the first plane disappears completely off of the radar over Manhattan, the people at air traffic control don't know where the plane has gone, even after they see smoke billowing from the North Tower. We remember, for a brief moment, a time when the idea of what had happened seemed so improbable as to be incomprehensible, and we understand their inability to put two and two together.
The choice to shoot almost entirely handheld and to use no well-known actors is, of course, the right one, preserving the movie's documentary feel. Fiction feels inadequate in the face of an event like 9/11, which is one reason September 11 was so disappointing (the best of the shorts, incidentally, was the one that simply remixed video and audio from 9/11 itself). Many of the characters are played by themselves, and when the credits roll and you see so many names in the cast listed as "As Herself" or "As Himself," your mind jumps back to moments in the movie, and you know that the tears were real. Contrast that with Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center, which will star known actors like Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal. It may very well be a fantastic movie, but what those recognizable faces add is a layer of abstraction.
As with The Bourne Supremacy, Paul Greengrass's previous film, the editing seems to keep tempo to the pace of the characters' hearts and minds. Or is it the other way around? At one point, while watching The Bourne Supremacy, I kept count of the number of edits during action sequences. They came at the rate of about one per second and put you in Bourne's head, the thousands of quick decisions his mind was churning through. United 93 has an editing pace just as frantic, mirroring the bewildered panic of our nation that morning and the tempo of my heart rate for most of the movie.
And yet, despite all this skill, fiction still feels inadequate to the task of resolving 9/11. At best, the movie can stir up the immediacy of that day, rouse us from our day-to-day stupor to leave us alone with our memories of that day, but it presents no solutions and is so tasteful in its choices as to be almost neutral. It is a riveting chronicle before which other horror movies seem meaningless, but as the daily news reminds us, we've yet to come close to resolving the conflict revealed to so much of the world that day. It's not "too soon" to make a movie about 9/11, as some NY filmgoers shouted during trailers for this movie, but it may be that only time, and not art, can bring closure to the tragedy of 9/11.