Authenticating the Reel: United 93 and the War on Terror

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This paper examines the intersection between representation and reality in Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93, a film that traces the final steps of the fourth hijacked aeroplane during the September 2001 attacks on America.
United 93 is one of several recent films that recount the events of 9/11. Some, such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, are documentary in nature; others, including Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, assemble fragments of evidence into coherent fictionalised narratives. United 93 is different because, while it similarly attempts to reproduce real events, it does so without the conventional gloss of Hollywood. Taking account of cinematography, mise-en-scène, lighting, and narrative structure, this paper will textually analyse United 93. It will show how it deviates from the predictable patterning of much American film and will engage theoretically with concepts of the real and the simulacrum as appropriate.
This paper will show that the film deviates from standard Hollywood narratives in several significant ways. The film fundamentally de-glamorises aspects of everyday life in an attempt to sustain authenticity. Moreover, its narrative structure is devoid of the usual order, disorder, order restored format that characterises much American cinema. It does not fit easily into typical genre categorisation, and lacks closure in the classic narrative sense. It sidesteps romantic possibilities, and avoids obvious use of CGI. Instead, United 93’s early grounding in the mundane makes its later events seem even more horrific. The depiction of the ordinary and un-spectacular aspects of people’s lives mediates particular realism. The use of actual people involved at the time as central characters, and the inter-cutting of documentary footage of the twin towers further contribute to an authentication of the real. Cinematography, as well as mise-en-scène, breaks with the conventions of fictional film in its realist tendencies. These aspects, together with a lack of stars and a general avoidance of aestheticising practice mean that ‘simulation’ appears close to reality. As a result, the film sustains particularly significant emotional impact, and may function perhaps, not only as a tribute to those on the flight, but also as a mode of catharsis for the spectator.


Keywords: United 93, Representation, Realism, Textual Analysis, Lacan, Baudrillard
Stream: Other
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Authenticating the Reel,


Dr. Fran Pheasant-Kelly

Senior Lecturer, Department of Film Studies
School of Humanities, Language and Social Science, University of Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, West Midlands, UK

I have a special interest in science and gender, representation, space, and institutions in American film. I am particularly interested in the relationship between abjection, space and subjectivity in 'institution films' and representations of the War on Terror in recent American film. I have contributed to collections on science fiction and recently written a chapter for a book entitled 'Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender' (to be published July 2009).

Ref: A09P0572