'United 93': Spirits In The Sky, By Kurt Loder

Also: 'Lady Vengeance,' a stalker film with enormous style.

It's a gorgeous late-summer day in Manhattan. The sun is up, bathing the streets in light, and the sky is a beautiful cloudless blue. Inside a hotel room, four men are making pre-atrocity preparations: murmuring prayers, bowing toward Mecca, reading from a Koran. Then they depart for Newark International Airport, in New Jersey, to catch a plane: United Airlines Flight 93. It's Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

"United 93," the profoundly moving new picture by the English director Paul Greengrass, follows that hijacked flight virtually in real time (the film is 91 minutes long), expertly orchestrating cutaways from the plane's increasingly chaotic cabin and cockpit to show us the alarm and then the mounting horror among air traffic controllers in Newark, Boston and Cleveland who are helplessly monitoring the plane's wayward course. At first, no one in the ATC posts, or the FAA operations center in Virginia, or the military's Northeast Air Defense Sector command headquarters in upstate New York can figure out what's going on — airplane hijackings seem like a long-ago phenomenon of the 1970s. Soon enough, though, they know.

The Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the unprecedented devastation of 9/11 hijacked four planes to destroy four high-profile targets: the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, the Pentagon, and either the White House or the Capitol building. United Flight 93, on its way to hit one of the latter two sites, was the only plane not to reach its intended destination. This may have been because of a 40-minute delay on the ground, which prevented the plane from taking off until 8:42 a.m. — just four minutes before the first of two planes hijacked out of Boston slammed into the Twin Towers. At 9:37, a third hijacked aircraft, flying out of Dulles Airport, near Washington, D.C., came slicing down out of the sky and hit the Pentagon.

In the movie, Flight 93 is already about 40 minutes into its scheduled trip to San Francisco when the four terrorists onboard jump up and viciously stab a passenger in the neck, then burst into the cockpit, kill the two pilots and take over the plane's controls. When some of the 37 passengers begin making surreptitious calls to people on the ground on the in-plane credit-card phones, they learn what has happened in New York and Washington, and they realize, with a terrible suddenness, that the hijackers' assurance that no one will be hurt if they all cooperate is a lie. They are all going to die, and they decide to fight back. We know what's going to happen, but now we are right there with them, and we experience their dread and their angry desperation in a direct and harrowing way.

Apart from the heart-wrenching phone calls made by the passengers to family members at home ("I'm just calling to tell you I love you," says one terrified young woman, "and goodbye"), no one really knows what happened on Flight 93. So Greengrass and his filmmaking team conducted hours and hours of interviews with military and civilian personnel, with members of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the events of that day, and with more than 100 friends and relatives of the passengers and crew, in the end arriving at what the director calls a "plausible truth." Then, equipped with an intimate understanding of each passenger and crew member — how they dressed, how they spoke, what they ate and what they believed — he blocked out rough scenes and allowed his cast members, similarly prepped with background information, to improvise their dialogue, both in the plane and on the ground. Since the cast is divided between skilled but not widely recognizable actors and a sizeable contingent of non-actors (many of whom actually played a part in the events depicted), and because the action is shot with handheld cameras, the movie has a feeling of terrible veracity — it seems in every way like a documentary. And even though — perhaps because — Greengrass never hypes us up, or contrives facile showpiece scenes, the effect is emotionally overwhelming.

It's been said in some quarters that this movie is coming "too soon" after the indelible events of 9/11, as if for some reason we won't be able to deal with a reality we already know. This seems to me exactly wrong. Having been lulled into semi-forgetfulness by a media blackout of the most hideous images of that day (the sight of some 200 people leaping to their deaths from the top stories of the Twin Towers, for example), we should have had this movie much earlier. The global rampage of Islamic terrorists has continued from that day to this, claiming thousands more lives in places ranging from India, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines to England, France, Spain and the Netherlands, not to mention Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Sudan (currently an intra-Islamic killing field — nobody murders more Muslims than the fundamentalist wing of the faith). Iran now has a plainly delusional president who is boldly taking his country nuclear, vowing to "wipe Israel off the map" and buying long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Europe. This would seem a good time to start remembering.

"The more films the better," says Allison Vadhan, the daughter of one Flight 93 passenger, in the movie's production notes. "We can't forget. We have to remember what happened, why it happened. And we can't fool ourselves into thinking it won't happen again if we forget about it."

"Lady Vengeance": Looking For Mr. Wrong

I was one of the three, maybe four people who had no use for South Korean director Park Chanwook's 2004 movie, "Oldboy." Watching a man stuff a live octopus into his mouth and start chewing on it, while tentacles whipped around his lips in cephalopodic indignation, was certainly a novel sight; unfortunately, the picture itself was even more of a mess than that. However, Park's new one, "Lady Vengeance," might have been made by another director — it's a sleek, vibrant exercise in style, texture and lighting. The story ...well, this is not a man who's obsessed with narrative clarity — the time frames are shuffled around like poker hands, and it's sometimes hard to keep track of where you are. (After a while you give up and just roll with it.) There are some startling set pieces, though, and the lead actress has a face of entrancing delicacy, and the picture as a whole is great to look at. We shouldn't complain.

A 33-year-old woman named Lee (Lee Young-ae) has just been released from prison after serving 13 years for kidnapping and killing a little boy. She confessed to the crime even though she wasn't guilty. The killer was actually a man named Mr. Baek ("Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik), a teacher to whom Lee had gone for help as a schoolgirl when she found herself pregnant. She had the baby, a daughter, and after Baek killed the little boy in a failed kidnap-ransom scheme, he seized Lee's child in order to force her to take responsibility for the crime. Now free at last, Lee has three goals. She longs for spiritual redemption for her peripheral complicity in the murder. She wants her daughter back. And she wants to kill Mr. Baek — a project she's been planning, in avid detail, for the last 13 years.

To this end, Lee has made some useful friends among the other inmates during her years in jail. One's a prostitute who strangled her pimp; another is a woman doing time for armed robbery; and a third is an old woman, a North Korean spy, who gives Lee a book called "The Way of Dhamma," which consists of a large diagram for the construction of a baroque-looking handgun that's only effective when fired about two inches away from its target.

We never learn what this "Way of Dhamma" is, and never fathom why, in a world of much more efficient weaponry, anyone would want to employ a pistol of such exotic near-uselessness. Nor do the colorfully particularized friends really add up to much in the plot. (Although one of them does have a witty sideline: She makes little statues of women holding up in their fists the severed heads of men; the statues are made to order for female customers, and the severed heads are modeled from photos of the women's boyfriends and husbands. "They're very popular," Lee's pal says.)

Loose plot ends flop around like octopod tentacles, but as I say, let's not quibble. Not when we can sit back and goggle at the dream sequence in which we see Lee trudging across a vast, snowy mountainscape dragging behind her a sled into which there is strapped a small dog. The dog, we soon realize, has the actual head of Mr. Baek. He's not very happy. Lee pulls out her weird blaster, presses it against his forehead, and blows his brains out. (Very messy — although a big gout of blood splattered across 20 feet of crisp snow is a pretty nifty image.) Then, the dream being over, she wakes up laughing.

Another scene, in which Lee goes to the house of the dead boy's parents and attempts to demonstrate her remorse by whacking off one of her fingers with a butcher knife, is a rather routine gore-movie move, and it's a bit jarring within the polished context of the rest of the picture. Park's camera glides hungrily across domestic landscapes of rich fabric, intricate prints and smooth, time-worn tiles, and peers down from on high into deeply shadowed city streets. He's a man who'll whip up an eccentric image first and ask questions — like what's it supposed to mean? — later, if at all. Thus, when we see the schoolgirl Lee inside the municipal aquarium building making a payphone call to Mr. Baek, she's crowded up against the side of the frame — almost all of which is otherwise filled with a huge, glimmering tank full of fish. Why not, I suppose.

Lee's revenge on Mr. Baek, when it finally comes, is extravagantly cruel and quite entertaining, although it goes on a bit too long. Possibly the most memorable thing in the film, though, along with the carefully graded colors and the hyper-imaginative editing, is the luminescent face of Lee Young-ae. It has the guileless beauty of a new moon at one moment, but can crinkle up into a twinkling, impish grin the next. We need no reason to savor such winsome allure, and this works out well — Park is just the guy not to give us one.

—Kurt Loder

See everything we've got on "United 93" and "Lady Vengeance."

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