I wish I could write something beautiful here. Something inspiring, insightful, or poetic. Something to encapsulate the Tuesday morning that changed the world. But instead let's start with questions:
Where were you?
Who were you with?
What did you feel?
Some reading this, perhaps, were in New York or Washington. They have friends or family who are lost yet not forgotten. They smelled smoke in the air and felt the ground shake. And while no outsider experience could stand up to such a personal connection or loss, the rest of us were there too. Watching and re-watching the footage which sprawled across every television network. Hoping for good news. A survivor unearthed. An answer to how this could have happened. The name of the person who did this to us.
I think that's the keyword here. Us. What I saw that day was people stepping up and coming together to help "us." My college roommate, Rob, and I went to give blood. We waited for ten hours, chatting with strangers in lines that would make the longest wait at Disneyland appear brief, but we were all there together. I mention this not to imply we did anything grand or heroic (we certainly did not), but to hopefully bring us all back to That Day. To a time when we all wanted to do something, anything.
That's exactly what 'United 93' does better than any other fictional version of September 11th, 2001. It takes the fly-on-the-wall documentary style director Paul Greengrass used for his 2002 breakout film 'Bloody Sunday', and hurls you back into the chaos, confusion, and madness of watching the unthinkable unfold live and in real time. It follows not only the boarding and flight time of United flight 93, but also various Air Traffic Control centers, FAA headquarters, and NORAD. It shows us how the day began like any other, and quickly spiraled out of control.
Honestly, I have no idea if 'United 93' works as a standalone film. Meaning, can anyone who didn't witness 9/11 in person or on television, actually connect with the drama unfolding on screen? Can the minutia of everyday life depicted make them care for a group of nameless characters who don't feature traditional movie introductions? Can this be, for them, one of the single most successful exercises in cinematic tension ever put to film? I don’t know.
What I will say is, for me, is that 'United 93' is an amazing piece of filmmaking. Every single frame drips with humanity and suspense. It dramatizes why this attack was so successful. It asks each of us how we would feel if we had been on one of those planes, in one of those buildings, working for the FAA or air traffic control. And, through what the filmmakers and researchers have concluded about the final moments of flight 93, it dares to ask what a group of strangers would do to fight back.
Flight 93 is said to have been the first hijacking in a post-9/11 world. Meaning, it was the first flight where hijacked passengers knew there wasn't going to be a ransom or an airport standoff. They knew their plane was destined to crash, most likely into a highly populated American landmark. And they knew something had to be done.
'United 93' is heartbreaking and stunning. I can't speak highly enough of every technical aspect. How the camera sucks you into every environment. How the film's musical score drums along like a ticking clock counting down to zero. How subtle the film is in terms of its acting performances, which were constructed and improved from a cast of unknowns and a few, like Ben Sliney -- an FAA National Operation Manager, who played themselves for the sake of authenticity.
Maybe you disagree. Maybe you feel this is an average film made by a studio that wanted to reap profits and/or humanitarian points off one of the worst days in American History. Maybe it won't connect with anyone who doesn't have the emotional baggage. That's fine. You don't have to like 'United 93'. Despite the perceived qualities I see on screen, it's a hard film to recommend, but the lives lost and the heroes born on that day are ones I don't wish to forget. That a British director, hot off his first global hit 'The Bourne Supremacy', was able to convince a movie studio to spend $15 million dollars is simply astonishing. This film is a memorial to those I wish were still here. If this is one of the ways in which they live on, I humbly say well done.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'United 93' debuts on a single disc BD50 that does not appear to be region locked. Like the previous release, there is a flyer inside the case imploring viewers to donate to the the Flight 93 memorial. Unlike the DVD release, there is no slipcover. Popping 'United 93' into your BD player takes you to an overall language selection menu, and then to the main menu.
'United 93' arrives on Blu-ray with a very strong VC-1 1080p high definition transfer in the film's original aspect ratio (2.35:1).
In comparing this Blu to my DVD copy, there is no competition; while the DVD is gritty and grainy and muddy, the Blu-ray is sharp, highly detailed, and features a more even color palette. The grain, which clouds the DVD release, is naturalistic here, giving a nice film look the presentation. Those concerned about DNR need not worry. Overall, skin tones are natural (for their settings) and despite the film's intentionally muted color scheme, the film looks the best it ever has on video. Really, check out the texture of clothing and seats and the actor's hair. Also, if you're looking for dust or scratches or damage of any kind, you won't find any (or, at least, I didn't).
However, there are some flaws. Stock footage doesn't always match the quality and can be grainy, and occasionally, the black levels are a bit gray or are overly crushed. I was nervous when the film started, as the Universal Logo shows off those gray black levels, but that was really the most offensive "shot." Thankfully, much of the film takes place inside a brightly lit (often with some blown out whites) airplane and despite some nitpicking, this is a real winner. It's not really demo material in the way colorful animated films or modern actions films can be, but this transfer matches the original theatrical release in terms of filmmaker intentions.
I rarely give out 5 star ratings in my reviews, and to be truthful, I'm a little borderline here about the 5.1 English DTS-HD MA track here on 'United 93.' I suppose if we offered a 4.75, I would have opted for that. Caveats aside, 'United 93' features an amazing soundtrack.
Let's talk dialog first. Yes, sometimes you can't hear what people are saying, but that's the fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style. We're popping in and out of real conversations. Conversations that feature four or more people talking at once. It's amazing. Then there are the sound effects. Ambiance is stunning, from the creaking of the plane's fuselage to the constantly running printer at the Boston Air Traffic Control center. The music is top notch as well, rounding out your whole system when necessary, and also as a literal and figurative percussion to build tension and transition in and out of scenes. The LFE roars when planes are taking off or when drums pound in the score. The imagining from front to rear and left to right is enveloping and engaging.
This is a really, really fine soundtrack, not only in how big it can be, but in how small and real it tends to feel. Is it as big as the chaotic maelstroms found in action tent poles and CGI animated blockbusters? No, but that's the whole point.
While it would have been nice to have something new here for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, all of the supplements on the 'United 93' Blu-ray are the same set of in depth features found on the two-disc limited edition DVD. That being said, in the coming weeks, we'll be overloaded with newly made documentaries and retrospectives, and the ones included here are already quite special. They include:
For anyone who experienced September 11th, 2001, 'United 93' is an emotional rollercoaster of a film, featuring exciting filmmaking and subtle and authentic performances, the Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic. If you're considering buying 'United 93', you have my full recommendation. If you haven't seen the film, please know it can be a harrowing experience, yet, one I think is worth taking now and again. For you, I would say rent it. Video and audiophiles you're getting a very strong video presentation (vastly superior to the DVD), and a near perfect audio surround sound track (which is both powerful and subtle). This is a must see.