It's a mark of great direction when an audience sits through a film transfixed, even though they know the story all too well. Paul Greengrass' United 93 relives an almost universally experienced act of violence, and itself ruptures the boundary between voyeur and victim — a profoundly empathetic act. We who watched September 11 unfold from a distance are wrenched out of our armchairs and strapped, cinematically, into the seats filled by its protagonists. In real time — without 'name' actors to hold our hands, without grandstanding, cartoon dialogue, and flattering camera angles — we see the event clearly for what it is: not some kind of 'statement', but a mass slaughter of innocents, simple and unadorned.
United 93 was widely and deservedly praised during its theatrical run. But now that awards time is rolling around, it's been passed over for confectionery like Dreamgirls and Little Miss Sunshine. Greengrass' film is compelling, but not always palatable. It's been objected, too, that shouldn't we have been told something about the why of September 11? In fact, Greengrass is astute enough to know that no amount of backstory is going to change our preconceptions. Instead he focuses on the event itself, aiming to show us both what actually happened, and what might have. In the opening shots of the hijackers in their hotel, little is spoken but a great deal is said; the quiet act of reading a book becomes one of the most frightening things in the world. It's an important film, and here's hoping that its achievement won't be overlooked.