A feeling of dread permeates "United 93." It starts even before you enter the theater--unless for some reason you are unaware that you're about to see a movie about the one hijacked plane on September 11, 2001, that didn't reach its target, the one that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers heroically and desperately broke into the cockpit and overwhelmed the hijackers.
The dread builds to almost unbearable dimensions as director Paul Greengrass takes us step by step through the events of that day, crosscutting between the doomed United flight and the flight controllers on the ground struggling to comprehend the multiple catastrophes in the skies.
Sight unseen, "United 93" has provoked outrage (even though the victims' families have all given it their seal of approval). Many people will simply decline the invitation to re-experience this nightmare. What can't be argued is Greengrass's mastery at creating an almost documentary sense of reality. That's his specialty, as anyone who saw his tale of the violent 1972 civil-rights march in Northern Ireland, "Bloody Sunday," well knows.
"United 93" is a memorial built of shattering, indelible images. This is first-rate, visceral filmmaking, no question: taut, watchful, free of false histrionics, as observant of the fear in the young terrorists' eyes as the hysteria in the passenger cabin, and smart enough to know this material doesn't need to be sensationalized or sentimentalized. Wisely, Greengrass has avoided casting recognizable faces, and many of the flight controllers are played by the people who were actually on the job that day, including FAA national operations officer Ben Sliney. Though you know the outcome, you can't help hoping (as you would at any thriller) that things will turn out differently, that the military will intervene, that the president will be found, that someone will define the rules of engagement.
But the movie's strength--its wrenching realism--is also its limitation. Greengrass gives us the surface and sensation of reality. As a picture of behavior in extremity, it rings true. But without context, psychology, politics or contemplative distance, you may wonder what, exactly, this re-creation illuminates. "United 93" isn't exploitation, but what is it? On some basic level, it can't help but be a thrill ride, albeit one that leaves you somber and drained. Whether you need that ride is a question you'll have to answer yourself.