UNITED 93 (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, and some Intense Sequences of Terror and Violence

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Written by: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann, Daniel Sauli, Khalid Abdalla, Sarmed al-Samarrai, Jamie Harding, Omar Berdouni, J.J. Johnson, Gary Commock, Nancy McDoniel & Erich Redman

September 11, 2001 shook America forever. Everyone U.S. citizen likely remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard news of terrorist attacks. That day shaped this country’s future, started a controversial war, and left millions weeping and feeling totally hopeless. However, the aftermath of 9/11 also showed the best of America by having people of all race, class, religion and social standing band together as one. Though it remains the darkest day in this country’s history, September 11th also carried a story of unwavering bravery in the face of certain death in the fourth hijacked flight that never reached its target. Paul Greengrass masterfully tells the story of what (might have) occurred on United Airlines Flight 93 and does so with complete, utter respect for the heavy material.

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UNITED 93 begins with no backstory. We open on the morning of September 11th, 2001. We see passengers boarding Flight 93 and panic slowly ensuing in the Federal Aviation Administration as hijackings are reported. The film plays out in real time and most of the passengers are not referred to by name. However, each performer playing a passenger actually met with the victim’s relatives beforehand to get a sense of who that person was. As a result, the plot plays on a sense of comradery among the passengers on the plane who show unbelievable courage in a horrifying situation. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the dialogue was improvised in sessions between the cast members and Greengrass, adding a more natural feeling to the film.

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Paul Greengrass realized that having recognizable A-listers attached to the sensitive material could potentially detract from the film’s atmosphere and the story’s power. As a result, Greengrass cast a bunch of unknowns as passengers and they come off as entirely believable. Adding to the unrecognizable faces are actual airline employees in the role of airline employees (flight attendants and pilots) and a FAA operations manager playing himself. Unfamiliar faces, characters that don’t seem like movie characters, natural dialogue, and a believable running time construct a convincing window back to that fateful day.

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The film’s plot, playing out in real time, has two distinct halves. The first half is build-up and initial attacks. We see the terrorists sitting among the other passengers and nervously wait for what’s eventually coming. There’s also a lot of time spent in the FAA offices during the first hour, whilst the World Trade Center is hit. The second half is more claustrophobic and centered on the titular flight passengers and crew members. We see the hijacking go down and one of the possible scenarios of how the failed terrorist attack played out. The filmmaking techniques masterfully keep the story gripping and powerful the whole way through, even if shaky camera work and out-of-focus bits slightly distract in certain scenes.

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Nobody knows exactly what took place on Flight 93, because the only surviving evidence exists in audio recordings and phone calls. Maybe the passengers broke into the cockpit or maybe they were mere seconds away from breaching it before the plane crashed. Maybe the pilots were killed immediately by the terrorists or maybe they were herded to the back of the plane with the other passengers. This was the first major Hollywood movie to address the September 11th attacks and it did so in a respectful, solemn manner. While some people will never watch this film out of understandable overwhelming heartbreak, movies can be cathartic in coming to terms with real-life events. September 11th was a day that shook America forever and will go down in infamy (along with Pearl Harbor), but something about seeing a respectful cinematic tribute to that dark day is therapeutic. UNITED 93 is a tough watch and an immensely rewarding experience.

Grade: A

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sustained Intense Sequences of Menace, some Violence with Bloody Images, and for Substance Use

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Written by: Billy Ray

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhard Abdi, Barkhard Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus & Catherine Keener

In April 2009, the Maersk Alabama became the first American ship to be hijacked by pirates in nearly two centuries. The ordeal was no doubt a traumatizing one and as such things go, a thriller was released in October 2013 detailing the events. Though the validity is questionable on some parts, it doesn’t make CAPTAIN PHILLIPS any less nerve-rackingly intense.

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Richard Phillips is the captain of a cargo ship. His latest trip is taking him around the horn of Africa, close to the coast of Somalia. The warnings of possible piracy situations are everywhere and Captain Phillips does everything in his power to keep their surroundings safe and secure. Alas, it is not enough. A group of four pirates hook onto the side of the cargo ship and make their way on board. Taking the Phillips by gun point and searching the ship for other potential hostages.

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The style in which the film is shot looks grainy and feels handheld for the most part. While that sounds like a terrible thing when I describe it like that, it benefits the rip-roaring intensity of the film tenfold. The build up to the actual hijacking is well done with some foreshadowing and a look into the lives of the pirates themselves. Any other film could just have the Somalis come off as one-dimensional villains, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS shows both sides of the coin. Does this make them sympathetic when they’re holding men hostage and threatening to kill them? Absolutely not, but it does give far more insight into the background of where these desperate pirates come from.

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While there aren’t many faces that stand out, Tom Hanks is the big draw here. His performance is breathtaking as Richard Phillips, who does his best to survive, even as the circumstances become more dire. The realistic approach to the film makes it all the more brutal and intense during moments. I was surprised this movie walked away with a PG-13 rating, especially after one moment of heart wrenching brutality that left me clutching my arm rests.

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So the film is damn near perfect, but what holds it back is actually the length of two-plus hours. This is a movie that could have used a trim here and there. The final 20 minutes of the movie feel stretched and this is especially true of one scene that seemed to go on for far too long until it almost got monotonous. This isn’t so much a movie as it is an experience though. You feel like you’re surviving the horrific situation (made all the more terrifying that it really happened) alongside Captain Phillips.

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Even though the film is a tad too long and has one scene that seemed to go on forever, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a very rewarding experience that offers some food for thought about the piracy situation, the terrible condition of Somalia that drives men to do this awful deeds purely for the money, and it will leave you feeling a bit chilled long after the film is over. This is up there with RUSH as an almost perfect film to come out of this year that was a bit flawed due to some so-so pacing at points. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS still comes highly recommended!

Grade: A

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