Taut and terrifying, United 93 is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The 9/11 story of the doomed flight that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers rose up against their hijackers is at once an indictment of the government's inability to react in the moment and a moving depiction of real people finding heroism their only course of action. There are some who say it's too soon to relive this story on film. Well, there is too soon and there is too late. And too late is too late. If our feelings are still raw on this subject, the film is certainly aware of it. Everything about United 93 is purposefully raw – from the use of hand held cameras that create a docudrama sensibility to the improvised performances of the actors/passengers on the plane.
We had the opportunity to talk to five of the actors who essayed real people who died on that fateful flight, three of which are – notably – musical theater performers: Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up), Chip Zien (A New Brain) and Lorna Dallas (Show Boat on the West End). Knowing that there was no script for the events that took place on the plane – only a timeline for known actions such as phone calls to loved ones at home – it makes perfect sense that actors used to working in live theater would be ideal to play these parts.
No one knows what actually happened on the plane, but Cheyenne Jackson described how all of the actors on the plane were given large packets of information about the people they were playing. It was their job to understand and embody these people and then react as they might to the events on the plane. Lorna Dallas stressed that the families had all signed off on the film, wanting it to be made. Many of the actors spoke to family members to get a greater insight into the people they were playing.
Eventually, the cast rehearsed for two weeks, improvising their lines, constantly experimenting with the ways in which the passengers and the terrorists would interact. Jackson noted that the actors playing the terrorists were purposefully kept away from the actors playing the passengers and crew; they met for the first time on the set when they began shooting.
Chip Zien, who, for a very good reason, has a smaller role than some others on the plane, said that the entire experience was intense. He noted that Cheyenne, who plays one of the heroes on the flight, was really terrific in the movie. He's right. In fact, all of the theater actors in the film acquit themselves admirably. It happens, by the way, that all of the actors were hired on the basis of being unknowns. Paul Greenglass didn't want recognizable, famous Hollywood or TV actors playing these parts. As avid theatergoers, however, you will have a slightly different experience when you recognize Cheyenne Jackson racing to get on the plane as the last one to board. You will recognize theater actor David Rasche who plays a passenger who did, in fact, know how to fly small planes; it was he who might have flown the hijacked jet to safety had he been given the chance.
But there are no star turns in United 93. For the most part, you won't even catch the names of the people on the plane. This movie isn't about character development. It's simply about character, period. It's about ordinary people forced, by circumstance, to no longer be passive. The first American response to 9/11 took place on United 93. This movie, without glorification, without mythologizing, reminds us that there were real people, not symbols, on that plane. Their humanity makes their heroism more real. It makes their loss more tragic. It makes the movie almost unbearable to watch because you can't so easily step back and treat it like a thriller. As Lorna Dallas said, "This is a film made both with passion and compassion." It is not to be shied away from.
The Wedding Singer: 4 stars
Reality check: This is The Wedding Singer, folks, not Le Miz. No one should expect high, or even middlebrow, art from this adaptation of a cute Adam Sandler movie. On its own terms, however, it is an extremely well-directed, highly entertaining musical comedy that is far superior to its source material.
The show starts on action. The curtain rises and we're already in the middle of a fast and furious dance number. Director John Rando grabs the audience right then and there and, with the help of set designer Scott Pask, masterfully weaves one scene into the next without ever having to wait so much as a beat. But even before the plot begins to unfold, we're treated to waves of bright and colorful costume designs by Gregory Gale and energetically youthful choreography by Rob Ashford. In other words, the show is a pure and simple entertainment.
The plot is the same piffle that existed in the movie, but now we've got the emblematic music of the '80s by Matthew Sklar and some very funny lyrics by Chad Beuelin. Songs like "Come Out of the Dumpster," "Somebody Kill Me," and "A Note From Linda" contain lyrics that have a natural throwaway style and manage to both drive the plot while also tossing off deceptively clever lyrics that could just as easily be sharply delivered dialogue.
The principal leads do their jobs well. As the title character, Stephen Lynch brings an unusual combination of wholesome charm with a dark comic center, and the girl he comes to love is played with winsome innocence by Laura Benanti. It just so happens, though, that the featured players get some fun material and they oftentimes steal the show. Amy Spanger is juicy as our heroine's cousin/best friend. Matthew Saldivar as the dumb but loveable best friend of our hero is a scream. Kevin Cahoon as the gay member of the wedding singer's band is stuck playing a stereotype but he still manages to milk some laughs from his part. Felicia Finley stops the show in her two comically inspired numbers; one only wishes she had a bigger part. Richard H. Blake as Laura Benanti's boorish future husband is much better than he has any need to be. He is part of the show's most traditional musical production number, "All About the Green," and he sings and dances with style.
The show's tone and effervescent attitude seems like a mirror image of Hairspray's. It aims to please – and, mostly, it does.