But there the similarities end. While the made-for-television film took the more obvious, sentimentalizing tack of focusing on the heart-rending phone calls of passengers to their families, Greengrass sticks resolutely to the men and women who had a direct hand in the unfolding tragedy. The result is a brilliant and harrowing document of human beings facing unanticipated terrors with a steadfastness that is all the more moving for being completely believable.
Authenticity is the keynote in this production. The British-born Greengrass, whose previous films include "Bloody Sunday" (2002), a distinguished depiction of the Irish troubles, and the edgy blockbuster "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004), makes frequent use of hand-held shots that often give the movie the look and immediacy of a documentary. The cast, too, has been carefully assembled to ensure that no whiff of Hollywood spectacle clings to the proceedings. There are seasoned actors, but no stars, and they share the screen with a surprising number of nonactors playing themselves.
The most remarkable of these is Ben Sliney, who was in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration's national command center that morning. I suppose one has to call what he does a performance, but his total lack of theatricality or false heroics gives the impression of utter naturalness, which ends up being far more affecting than the flourishes and bravado a star would have probably insisted on injecting into the role.
The first half of the film, in fact, is dominated not by the events on Flight 93 which wasn't hijacked until after both of the Twin Towers had been struck but by the air traffic controllers and military personnel as, thunderstruck, they come to understand the nature of what is happening. Although the film makes no bones about the failures of interagency communications and even veers into "Dr. Strangelove" territory at one point (a military command center has a boastful, vaguely menacing slogan painted on the wall that reads: "Huntress Total Control") what is most absorbing about these scenes is the self-control and competence of people who probably feel like collapsing in tears. They don't. This movie may be the highest compliment ever paid by a film to the unglamorous and mostly unsung virtues of professionalism.
Once the hijackers aboard Flight 93 make their move, the film proceeds, relentlessly, in real time. Greengrass refuses to portray all the hijackers themselves as monsters. The leader (Khalid Abdalla), in particular, seems plagued by doubts and inexplicably delays the order to rush the cockpit. Once the order is given, however, he, like everyone else in the film, masters his emotions, the better to play his assigned part in the tragedy.
Once they have recovered from their initial terror, the passengers, too, determine a bold course of action with a completely credible combination of fear and calculation. Attempting to portray as much of what was going on as possible, the film becomes a kaleidoscopic montage of suffering. As flight attendants ready boiling water and little knives for use as weapons, a passenger calls home to relay the combination of her safe, where her will is. The passengers' assault itself is a frantic blur, edited with an intentional jaggedness that captures the confusion and madness of those final seconds.
At one particularly horrifying moment, men in the Newark airport control tower look up from their radar screens to discover that the plane they've been tracking is flying past their windows, hurtling toward Manhattan. Suddenly they aren't looking at flickering lights on a little screen, but at the terrible thing itself. The nightmarish clarity of "United 93" provokes much the same feeling. (R) 111 min. ***** S