United 93 puts the viewer in the midst of 9/11 confusion and heart breaking sacrifice, a film not played for entertainment, but remembrance. This is what the medium was made for and what it is capable of, a non-glamorized recounting meant to preserve memories and heroics while remaining static in terms of theatrics.
The film travels from the routine to the chaotic, ground controllers playing themselves, passengers played by unknowns who are simply impeccable and transparent to the material. The experience is wholly unnerving and entirely stressful, camerawork overloaded with focal tricks, light plays, and shaking to intensify already overwhelming images.
It gives a voice to those who no longer have one, losing it in a battle they never could have assumed they were in the midst of. United 93 is a moving monument to the lives those passengers saved at the sacrifice of their own, respectful and disheartening at times with its realism. This is what movies can be and should be more often, although thankfully such events lack regularity for Hollywood to latch onto.
United 93 is beyond critiques and criticism; those who do in any manner missing the point. This is a perfect movie, and for reasons beyond the subject matter. It’s aggression and pacing are unparalleled, its sound design meticulous, characters mourned purely for their humanity, and its look entirely believable. Everything United 93 needed, it got, and the end result is an at times unassuming, disturbingly realistic, gut-wrenching story that had to be told.
Universal pushes the Blu-ray out in time for the decade anniversary of 9/11, this encode more than likely set for HD DVD. The format simply didn’t last long enough for any significant date mark. A sure sign is VC-1, Universal generally long past that specific codec, their modern catalog titles all AVC by this point (unless they’re HD DVD hold overs of course). That gives the movie a dated feel in HD, overwrought with compression as the codec battles rapidly swapping film formats. Greengrass utilized both 16 and 35 mm, all scene dependent.
There should be some joy that Universal had enough respect to leave this one alone, but it must have been too modern to tinker with as the studio so loves to do. Black levels become the key concern, mostly because they’re missing almost entirely. Those under lit control rooms are drenched in gaudy dark greens, blues, and even some purples. Black levels will only find their niche aboard the plane itself, light pouring in from the windows to give the interior dimensionality.
Style can impede finer detail, natural motion blur heavy as the camera bobs and weaves for effect. That’s not to say none is present, a number of close-ups highly textured and crisp. When the camera slows, it’s to build emotion or stall for impending action, the naturalistic definition finding its mark right when it needs it.
All aspects of the film itself are meant to imbue a sense of realism, the sometimes dim color right on track for that mark. The Blu-ray hasn’t undergone any needless saturation. United 93 maintains its grittiness and visual intensity almost unscathed in HD were it not for that pesky codec and under active blacks.
Dreamgirls took home the Oscar for Best Sound Design back in 2007, United 93 snubbed without even garnering a nomination. Simply put, it was screwed. There’s one philosophy with regards to United, and that’s total immersion. No, it doesn’t have any heavy-handed bass, no overcooked action scenes, or even an explosion. This is however what sound design was made for, the type of mixing that brings a viewer deeper into the events as they’re portrayed, the DTS-HD track never missing a beat.
Ambiance is extraordinary, arguably some of the best of this post-surround sound era. The level of chatter and panic within those control rooms is remarkable, phones ring incessantly, doors slam shut, voice directionality is sublime, and the pure balance of it all is rarely this masterful. Minimal musical cues have a full wrap-around effect, instruments pinging in the surrounds, swelling in the fronts, in perfect harmony with the dialogue.
On the passenger jet itself, it’s more of the same, elevated as the terrorists take over. Those final moments are sheer panic, the rush to the cockpit and the inevitable result staggering in its power… and that’s just the audio side. As the terrorist pilot takes over, he’ll drop and rock the plane, the ability of this mix coming through in spades as the engines change directions and the interior shakes in protest.
The final piece is disturbing silence, the enormity of the events finally coming to light on the ground via news reports. Everyone simply stares in stunned silence, only the sound of a few who cannot abandon their post clicking away on keyboards or making a call. CNN anchors dominate the soundfield for a few moments before everyone will spring back into action, confusion pumped right back into the mix. The audio is as perfect as the film.
Paul Greengrass offers a solo commentary, that followed by a number of must-see documentaries. The Families and the Film focuses on those who lost someone on the flight, and their involvement with Greengrass. It’s a somber hour-long piece, no sensationalism, and wholly respecting of those who will never forget that day on a deeper level than the rest of us. Chasing Planes takes 49-minutes to tell the stories of the ground crews, most of them acting in the film.
Memorial pages offer text biographies of each person who lost their life on United 93, while Flight 93 National Memorial is an extended commercial for those trying to build in remembrance of where the plane went down. A decade later and there’s still nothing, although you can donate to the cause. Trailers and BD-Live access round off this complete DVD to Blu-ray transition.
Note: Screens were tremendously difficult to capture as nearly every shot was in motion. Some blur may impede fine detail that remains intact while watching on your own equipment.