It is 10 years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Five years ago, three films were made about the day: “United 93,” “Flight 93” and “World Trade Center.” I avoided these films upon their release. I knew I wasn't ready to watch them. Even now I was uncertain, but the time felt right.
Oliver Stone's “World Trade Center” was the big budget Hollywood treatment of the tragedy. The story centers on the true story of two Port Authority police officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) trapped in the rubble of the buildings.
The film is semi-successful. The harrowing recreation of Ground Zero is remarkable. It feels as if Stone and his crew went back in time and were filming on location. There are powerful images throughout the film and Stone is careful to not exploit this sensitive material.
The film is its most affecting and powerful when it focuses on Cage and Pena, who are separated and pinned down, keeping each other awake, and therefore alive, by talking to each other. The film loses some of that power when it cuts away for flashbacks and to see their families reacting to them being missing and then, ultimately, discovered.
This device could be effective, but the problem is the writing of these scenes. The screenplay by Andrea Berloff is too melodramatic and cliche when presenting these domestic scenes. Some of the acting saves the material though. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a nuanced, controlled performance as Pena's wife, which only accentuates how broad, shrill and over-the-top Maria Bello's performance as Cage's wife is.
“United 93” and “Flight 93” both tell the story of the hijacked flight that didn't reach its destination and instead crashed near Shanksville, Pa. when passengers foiled the hijackers. “Flight 93” was a TV movie made for A&E whereas “United 93” was theatrically released.
I didn't watch “Flight 93.” One film on the subject was enough for me. Between “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” “United 93” is the film to watch. Unlike “World Trade Center,” the scale is small and intimate. The film cuts between Flight 93, the Air Traffic Control Tower in New York City, Air Traffic Control Center in Ohio and the NORAD base.
Director Paul Greengrass uses handheld camera work that gives an immediacy to the material that makes you feel as if you are on the plane or in the air traffic control tower. There's an authenticity to the film because much of the cast is full of actual air traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants and military personnel. Ben Sliney, the FAA's national operations manager, who made the decision on 9/11 to shut down all air traffic operations in the United States, actually plays himself in the film.
Greengrass did extensive research with the families of those who died in the crash to make sure to honor these people the best he could. Much of the film's action isn't actually on the plane, but in the towers in which the confusion and chaos of realizing something is very wrong is palpable.
Once the action does move solely to the events on the plane the film is relentless intense and emotionally charged. Passengers call their families, but, unlike “World Trade Center,” we don't cut to the family members. We are stuck on that plane with the passengers.
The final moments of “United 93” as the passengers realize they have to overtake the hijackers are heroic and heartbreaking.
Both “United 93” and “World Trade Center” are reminders that while the events of Sept. 11, 2011 showed the worst of humanity they also brought out the best.