Greengrass creates extraordinary film of tragic flight

Critics' picks: New DVDs

September 03, 2006|By Michael Sragow

UNITED 93, Two-Disc Edition -- Universal Home Video / $30.98

British director Paul Greengrass' fact-based imagining of what transpired on this plane on Sept. 11 marks the pinnacle of docudrama art.

This movie imbues the ordinary activities of people boarding and then enjoying a flight on a glittering late-summer day with incandescent poetry.

But it also brings ferocious investigative chops to the confusion that transpired in civilian and military air-traffic control centers when three other planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those two creative fonts come together with a flood of passion and revelation when hijackers take over Flight 93.

Connected to the world by cell phone, the passengers realize they're on a giant suicide bomb - and become the first Westerners to confront Islamic fascist terrorism with full knowledge of its atrocious tactics.

As they reach their decision to storm the cockpit, they pit a muscular democracy against the ruthless bravado of al-Qaida.

What gives the film its extraordinary blend of tenderness and power is Greengrass' seamless connection between the events inside and outside the plane.

Special features

The two-disc DVD, out Tuesday, reveals just how he achieved his stream of expressive strokes and insights. One supporting documentary, Chasing Planes, creates its own hard-edged narrative about soldiers and civilians operating in a new fog of terrorism as they desperately try to identify, then track, the commandeered aircraft. If both this documentary and the film has a hero, it's Ben Sliney, the operations manager at the FAA command center in Herndon, Va., who gave unprecedented orders to clear U.S. airspace of domestic aircraft. But in Chasing Planes, he chalks up many of America's security failures that day to communications breakdowns both in the military and the FAA. You can see why Greengrass cast Sliney and many of his colleagues to play themselves in the film; they have a piercing honesty.

The second supporting documentary, The Families and the Film, depicts the close connection between the heroes' survivors and the largely unknown or nonprofessional actors who played the passengers and crew.

Hours of discussion over the phone enabled performers to bring a deep yet casual poignancy to the lovely, common sights of people nestling against each other or reading books and tourist maps or simply stretching out in the morning light.

When one widower in The Families and the Film talks about his wife's last cell phone call, and we see a clip of that call from United 93, it may be the most extraordinary transition ever captured in a "making-of" featurette: you feel a lightning strike of sorrow, then an engulfing gratitude that Greengrass and company have given her a measure of artistic immortality.


GOJIRA A/K/A GODZILLA --ClassicMedia/$21.98

SEVEN SAMURAI --Criterion Collection/$41.95

Two 1954 movies that changed Japanese and international cinema appear in deluxe editions Tuesday: Akira Kurosawa's surging action epic Seven Samurai, on a three-disc set packed with extras, and Ishiro Honda's Gojira, on a two-disc set that also contains the recut Yankee version called Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The complete Seven Samurai has long been available. Honda's original Gojira is new to DVD and has genuine pulp magic. H-bomb tests awaken a 400-foot sea dragon; the monster is obviously an actor in a rubber suit, but when he crushes trains and swats down fighter planes, the destruction (like the no-nuke parable) is smashing in every sense of the word. And without Raymond Burr's tacked-on role as an American reporter, the immortal Takashi Shimura - the anchor of Seven Samurai, too - emerges as the indisputable star.

Michael Sragow

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