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Terror, in real time

'Unted 93' lets us feel again what we felt on 9/11 -- whether we're ready to or not

Is it too soon? Maybe. Probably. But if we're to endure the unimaginable realities of Sept. 11, 2001, retrofitted into a two-hour Hollywood movie, this is the way to do it.

As written and directed by Paul Greengrass, ''United 93" turns out to be a harrowing, honorable, even necessary memorial to the 40 passengers and crew members of the doomed flight -- and to a national innocence that, five years later, seems irretrievably in the past. The movie is hard going, not least in the sense of powerlessness it leaves in an audience that knows exactly what will happen. And yet you come out feeling that the filmmakers have done the right thing by these people, and by this day.

Maybe it's something less rosy than innocence that ''United 93" captures in its opening moments, as sleepy passengers queue up at airport gates and four somber young men slip into line without glancing at each other. There's a heartbreaking naivete to the pilots' banal chitchat, to the lazy cellphone calls of those boarding. We're witnessing the last moments of complacency.

Much of the first half of ''United 93" occurs on the ground, as Greengrass re-creates the slowly growing confusion and panic that enveloped the air traffic control centers of the Northeast. As the title airplane taxies down the runway, a controller in Boston hears a snippet of Arabic and suddenly American Airlines Flight 11 is suspect -- the first of the four planes to go AWOL. But there hasn't been a hijacking since, what, 1990?

Word is passed to New York, and to the National Air Traffic Control Center in Herndon, Va., where newly promoted supervisor Ben Sliney is starting his first day on the job. The Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y., is alerted, too, but since there's a major NORAD exercise off the coast, hardly anyone's minding the store. ''This a sim?" someone asks. ''No -- real world," comes the reply.

These scenes take place in dark, crowded, low-ceilinged rooms filled with dumpy men, many of whom, it turns out, are playing themselves. This is both good for the movie -- the actors' naturalness is welcome, and who'd know better what happened that day? -- and jarring for the audience, as though a role in the inevitable Hollywood version is the proper reward for every survivor.

If there's a hero anywhere on the ground, it's Sliney, and his heroism takes the form of simply thinking on his feet as American 11 disappears from the radar screens and United 175 drops like a manhole cover and then someone turns on CNN because a small plane has supposedly crashed into one of the Twin Towers and then the second plane hits and everyone in the movie goes terribly silent because the new age is upon us.

The final plane in the air, of course, was United 93, out of Newark and bound for San Francisco; after a struggle between the hijackers and the passengers, it would crash into a rural Pennsylvania field. Greengrass cuts back and forth between the widening shock on the ground to the still-calm flight in the air, but after the first hour he settles in: the hesitant first moves of the terrorist leader (Khalid Abdalla), the slaughter in the cockpit, the chaos as passengers are herded to the rear, calls going out on in-flight phones, bad news coming in, the resolve to do something, anything.

''We need every big guy," someone says, and, thankfully, the scene isn't played for can-do triumphalism, as it was in A&E's version back in January. Even ''Let's roll," the famous line of Todd Beamer (David Alan Basche), is tossed away in the heat of immediacy. I could reel off the names of the actors, but that would be very much beside the point; ''United 93" has been cast for anonymity, and except for John Rothman, the character actor playing passenger Edward Felt, there's not an ''oh, that guy" moment in the movie.

Greengrass made ''The Bourne Supremacy," but the relevant item in his filmography is 2002's ''Bloody Sunday," a minute-by-minute re-creation of the 1972 Derry Massacre in Northern Ireland. Like that film, ''United 93" is a muscular retelling that aims for near-documentary verisimilitude. The director does everything in his power to humanize his characters, as opposed to dramatizing them -- and that includes the terrorists some viewers would prefer to see demonized.

The sequence toward the end, as the flight plunges closer to Washington and everyone on board prays to his or her respective god, is the closest to commentary the film comes, and it's pitched halfway between muted irony and a spooky, all-encompassing bereavement. So much died that day, the film implies, that we still haven't buried it all.

Elsewhere, ''United 93" works hard to stay apolitical; viewers hoping for flag-waving on the right, finger-pointing on the left, or all-American martyrdom in the middle will come away disappointed. (As will the lunatic fringe convinced the whole thing was staged, in which case this movie must be part of the government coverup, too. That's the great thing about conspiracy theories -- they're flexible enough to fit any paranoia.) The movie eloquently sets the bar for all subsequent 9/11 stories; one awaits Oliver Stone's ''World Trade Center," due in August, with newly sharpened dread.

The one misstep Greengrass makes -- aside from the European passenger who talks appeasement like an airborne Neville Chamberlain -- is in commissioning John Powell's soundtrack music. Reasonably discreet, the score still gilds the scenes with melodrama by its very presence.

Music isn't needed here. We know what to feel. ''United 93" peels back the political rhetoric and emotional calluses of five years of war and lets us feel it again. Why? Only because people died that day, and because they deserve to be remembered.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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