Comparing Paul Greengrass’s United 93 to Mel Gibson’s last derictorial effort The Passion of the Christ might create a lot of resentment towards me, but I’ll do it anyways. The first fitting comparison I can think of is the fact that when you go see either film, you find yourself not looking forward to it. Both films are relentless in their, frequently disturbing, way of re-creating events that were violent and unforgettable. A second way that we can compare these two films is by the events they depict. The events were both cruel and unfair; brought about by fear and jealousy, felt by the person doing the horrible deed. The third and last comparison that can be made between the two pictures is that neither colors the persons doing the deed in a strictly negative light. Gibson isn’t Anti-Semitic and Greengrass is never Anti-Muslim. Gibson’s antagonists are simply seen as servants of fate, or as a few scenes indicate, people influenced by the devil itself (Gibson illustrates them commiting a few of the Seven Deadly Sins at random points in the film). Greengrass takes a totally different approach to the subject by not giving us any background on the characters, so the audience is left to think for itself about the reasons why these people want to do this. He also does a good job of not creating the terrorists one-dimensional by using small touches and characteristics in the script (people are bound to notice the fact that the terrorist who is at first hesitant to go through with the mission is the one who eventually crahses the plane into the ground).
Yet, that is where the similarities between The Passion of the Christ and United 93 end. While the structure of both screenplays is similar, the two films’ endings are very different. Gibson ends his film with a message of hope. As Jesus is ressurected, light seemingly breaks through darkness. Greengrass ends this film with a feeling of anger and remorse. The short history lesson he offers when the screen goes to black right before the plane hits the ground is redundant, because it’s so well-known already. Still it does recap what happened on that day and it is a painful reminder.
Greengrass’s screenplay tells the story of these totally normal Americans very well. The amazingly realistic dialogue that he conveys adds to the great sense of being there. In fact many times I felt afraid in a way. Afraid for these people. I kept wanting something to happen so that the terrorists don’t go forward with their plans, but it was not to be. That of course says something about filmmaker Greengrass’s skill in creating an atmosphere that is both dreadful and scary, not in the sense that I would use to describe something like Silent Hill, but in a way that their definitions apply to real life. The horrible reality of it is probably the worst thing that one could realize during this movie, but the movie makes sure one does, and it makes it a powerful moment.
Also, while the movie can be criticized for the fact that it spends a lot of time with the people and officials on the ground who tried to make sense of the situation while it was happening, I think it’s time well spent, because it offers a seemingly-accurate view of what might have gone wrong. Also Greengrass needs to fill time (he wanted to make this film exactly the same length as the flight) and instead of spending all his time in the place where the main action happened (like Gus Van Sant might have done as he did with Elephant), chooses to display something different and exciting, which might strike some people as grotesquely mainstream considering the subject, but again, it’s just fine. Still, it can’t match up to the intensity of the goings-on in the plane that in the last 15 to 20 miniutes range from chaotic to intense to heart-stopping.
In those last minutes Greengrass’s style of filmmaking becomes most appropriate. The shaky camera by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd as directed by Greengrass, fits the chaos perfectly. I might even go as far as to call it Oscar-Worthy. Speaking of cinematography, the film looks a little bland. That might turn-off some viewers, but I think it adds to the realism. Also the score by John Powell is used very well and it is also a very emotional score, but it’s still used sparingly. Not as sparingly as Spielberg used Williams’s score for Munich thank God.
Overall, this film is made with good intentions (other than the one that involves making money of course) and even people who think this might be exploitative in any way before they have seen it, will change their minds. Greengrass’s refusal to send political messages of any sort is admirable and also his desicion not to include any scenes that are too melodramatic for their own good (although I must say the sequence with the people calling their relatives from the plane struck me as something like that) is a welcome one. I’m just hoping that Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center does the same thing.