When Paul Greengrass announced plans to write and direct United 93, a drama about the hijacked flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, the public shuddered at what they feared would be a crass exercise in Hollywood exploitation. It was too soon. It was in bad taste. It was wrong. Perhaps it would have been — in the hands of a less gifted filmmaker.
But Greengrass, 51, delivered a sensitive, respectful tribute to the victims of 9/11 — and one of the year’s most moving films. Unfolding in real time, United 93 chillingly reenacts the 40 passengers’ decision to wrest control of the jet from four hijackers, while on the ground the FAA and other government agencies scramble to make sense of what is happening. As he did with 2002’s Bloody Sunday, his cinema-verité look at the 1972 massacre in Northern Ireland, Greengrass captures the tragedy of 9/11 on a human scale. There are no sweeping proclamations of heroism, just the bare-bones story of everyday people coping with a terrifying situation.
Before production, Greengrass secured the support of all the families of Flight 93 victims. Still, he knew what a delicate task he was facing. ”What you have to try and do,” the British director said last January on the Newark Airport set, ”is make the film with a lot of humility and hope you get it right.” With his first Oscar nod, he certainly succeeded.