United 93, Paul Greengrass’s depiction of the 9/11 jetliner whose passengers rose up against its hijackers and crashed it into a field in Pennsylvania, is a movie less interesting in itself than in the questions of intention and reception that surround it. Why do we need a movie like this? One asks this all the time about bad movies, of course; but United 93 is not a bad movie, and so the question isn’t merely rhetorical. What is the point of depicting an event already as enormous in the public mind as the attacks of 9/11?

The film carries with it an unsettling sense of sacred memory and the lurking potential for blasphemy. Standing in line for tickets, a friend and I discussed flight-disaster movies, and as we laughed to recall the inane comedy of Airplane, suddenly I worried: might someone within earshot be offended? Such wariness surely in part explains the near-unanimous praise United 93 has received from reviewers. Who wants to desecrate a national shrine? I understand that the first screenings in Manhattan were attended by family members. You couldn’t have paid me to go.

As for the actual film, it is understated and scrupulous, anxious to distance itself from the dazzling action of the director’s last film, The Bourne Supremacy. Here Greengrass uses unknown actors, as if to avoid exploiting the material or tainting it with celebrity. The film opens on a note of somber restraint-no music, just a...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.