United 93 (2006)
There was a bit of controversy surrounding this film around the time of its release, which is a shame, because it overshadowed the question of whether the film was actually any good. Well, it is. Away from all the hoopla it's clear that United 93 is an excellent and unique work from writer / director Paul Greengrass.
There's not much to tell about the story that people who haven't been hibernating in a cave for the last few years don't already know. It's about the plane that didn't reach its target on September 11. It covers events on the day leading up to the plane's crash in a field in Pennsylvania, cutting back and forth between the passengers, the flight crew, air traffic controllers, the FAA, NORAD, and of course the terrorists. As the days events unfold, we see officials going from amused indifference to disbelief to panic, and we see the conflict on board flight 93 as the terrorists take over and the passengers are forced to deal with the situation.
What makes this film work is, in a word, verisimilitude. Everything that happens is reconstructed as far as possible from the facts that were available, with everything that's made up being done so through extrapolation from those facts. The obviously made up bits, such as conversations between passengers, never ring false. Greengrass made the film in a documentary style, with natural looking visuals and hand-held cameras following people around in real environments. The dialogue is completely realistic and feels unrehearsed - there are no 'big' speeches or quotable lines. The soundtrack is populated with ambient sound effects and the music is understated, used only to enhance mood. There are no 'name' actors - in fact, a few people are actually portrayed by their real life counterparts - and the film is better for it because making everyone on screen nondescript adds to the believability of what is depicted.
The pacing is admittedly a bit off in the mid section of the film - there are too many jumps to air traffic controllers and NORAD personnel, and some of the time their jargon filled dialogue is not entirely clear. That caveat aside, the film is a tense experience that builds up to the key events on the plane, and even though there are no surprises it still manages to be nerve racking. The final third of the film focuses entirely on the events on board the plane, and is the strongest and most harrowing segment.
Ultimately the film manages to be dramatic despite not having dramatic moments - it is unsentimental and nonjudgemental and simply plays out the events as they might have happened. Having read a few reviews of the film after watching it, I've come to agree with Moriarty's take at AICN, in that the film's essentially apolitical* and that differing views can be mapped onto it. Greengrass merely presents the facts in as real a way as possible, and by doing that I believe he also accurately recreates the mood and feelings that would have accompanied those events, which is what elevates United 93 above a run of the mill docudrama.
It's hard to say how will the film hold up. I think it's a fair criticism that it presents minimal context for the days events, but I feel that it presents enough to stand on its own regardless of the viewer's level of knowledge. At the least, it works as a compelling dramatic thriller. More likely it'll stand the test of time as an encapsulation of certain key events from a significant day in history. Either way it'll certainly be looked back on as a fine piece of filmmaking.
* One thing I should point out is the depiction of a German passenger on the plane as being cowardly, as noted here. I confess that I didn't notice that the man counseling negotiation was also the only non-American on board, and also have to admit that it's easy to read something into that.