Each American needs to decide for themselves whether it’s too soon for them to watch a film depicting the events of September 11, 2001. It should be up to no one but ourselves the answer to that question- everyone who experienced that day almost five years ago is capable of the free will to make that choice for themselves. Hollywood feels it is time to address the subject- Universal’s “United 93” is followed this summer with Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” from Paramount, although people have evidently forgotten than Michael Moore’s polarizing and powerful “Fahrenheit 9/11” addressed the day head-on two years ago, and people turned out in large numbers. But that looked at that day with the knowledge of the events that followed, angry at what has come to pass in its’ aftermath. One of the great strengths of “United 93”- writtten and directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “Bloody Sunday”)- is that while its’ makers have the knowledge of what came after (a powerful epilogue follows the final frame), it operates in the moment, where people weren’t aware of the people and countries those of us who have lived past that day have become aware of on a daily basis. Intellectually, we know more about that day than the people in the movie do, but for 111 tense, devastating minutes, we forget that knowledge and are in the moment with the people depicted in this movie.
The story you know. On September 11, four US planes were highjacked by 19 Islamic terrorists. Two hit the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people and leveling the iconic Manhattan skyscrapers. One hit the Pentagon, killing more and destroying part of our Military headquarters. “United 93” is the story of the fourth, which was the last to take off (it took off just minutes before the first plane hit the Trade Center), and the only one that didn’t make it to its’ intended target, presumably the Capitol building. What exactly happened is unsure, but through materials such as “The 9/11 Commission Report,” the cockpit recordings people on the ground heard, and transcripts of phone calls the passengers’ made to loved ones, there is near consensus that the 40 passengers and crew left alive after the takeover tried to take back the plane, causing it to crash in Pennsylvania. In his exceptional screenplay, crafted from meticulous research, Greengrass creates a timeline on the plane- deftly interwoven with the realization and response from military and air traffic people on the ground during the first half of the film- that unfolds in bracing real-time and feels completely genuine to what may have happened.
From the first moments of “United 93,” where we watched as the four highjackers make preparations and pray the night before, Greengrass creates a mood of forboding, anxiety, and paralysis in the viewer (this is enhanced brilliantly in the subdued but effective score by John Powell, who expertly scored “Supremacy” for Greengrass and takes his game to an even higher level here). Part of this is our knowledge going in that, in the end, this film will not see good triumph over unimaginable evil…not in the way we hope at least, and have seen in popcorn flicks past such as “Air Force One.” But Greengrass- who shot the film for $15 million, in uninterrupted takes that sometimes lasted for 40 minutes, with handheld cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd) and visceral, clear-eyed editing (by Christopher Rouse, Richard Pearson, and Clare Douglas) that puts us in a “you are here” point-of-view that hasn’t been this effective since “Saving Private Ryan”- isn’t exploiting the pain we felt that day by recreating it- if he was, he would have made a conventional popcorn thriller along the lines of an “Air Force One.” The effect of Greengrass’ success at this reminds one of what they felt not just on that day, but also in watching “Schindler’s List,” where Spielberg didn’t let the audience out of the horror he was recreating with intense compassion for the victims and uncompromising realism in the brutality we’re watching onscreen. Greengrass and his cast (largely unknowns) and crew earn our attention with rigerous intelligence.
One of the most interesting aspects of “United 93” I felt was that, with little exception (namely, Ben Sliney, the chief of air traffic control at the FAA that day- his first on the job- who plays himself in this film), we don’t learn about, or focus on, individuals or learn names (which we can look up on our own). It was a smart decision. To play favorites would be disrespectful to all of the victims, and the families they left behind. Some personalities come through stronger than others, but such is the nature of storytelling- Greengrass makes such instances come through the story organically, without the sometimes false heroics of fiction. In the end, we’re still shown a story about groups of characters trapped in a situation. Some, like the terrorists (who are portrayed without an ounce of Hollywood stereotyping, with moments of humanity- for lack of a better term- coming through naturally; the leader seems to hesitate for reasons deeper than what we’re told), who set the situation in motion (and must answer for the loss of life they caused in the afterlife), are trapped, nonetheless, by a radical and hateful ideology that has brainwashed them into thinking their suicide and needless murder of individuals whose beliefs and lifestyles are different from their own will lead them to a better place. Others, like the military and flight personel on the ground, are trapped in a state of paralysis, trying desparately to diffuse the crisis while hampered by the beaureacracy and political red tape that goes with decisions that need to be made on the spot (the military leaders at NORAD try desparately to get Presidential authorization to open fire on one of the highjacked planes, if necessary; Sliney’s on-the-spot decision to suspend all air-traffic as the situation grows worse was a much-needed political risk that shows resolve in a situation when others would panic). And then there are the 40 passengers and crew members of United 93, who never could have imagined that morning would be their last. That they react to the situation with panic and fear is understandable (who among us wouldn’t do the same?); that unnerving strength and resolve to act in the face of it- defiance in the face of dispair (an inspiring idea I’ve seen in many of the best fiction/fantasy stories of recent years)- comes through in the end, and is the driving force by which they- in Greengrass’ unforgettable film at least- breach the cockpit is the height of what we’re capable of in our humanity. They put their lives at risk- though they know they will probably not survive before their final stand- so that others may live.
In writing this last part I was actually reminded of words read in “Heroes,” a collection of portraits and essays by some of the greatest comic book writers and artists in the field that was released not long after that day of tragedy. In one of these portraits, Kurt Busiek wrote, “New York journalist Katie Rolphe may have put it best when she wrote, simply, ‘We also have men who are willing to die for an idea.’ To those who came, those who helped, those who died trying to save others: We thank you. We honor you. We will never forget your heroism.” In writing this, Busiek was writing of the policemen, firefighters, emergency workers, and civilians who came to the aid of New York after the Trade Center was hit, but his words apply just as much to the individuals aboard at least this particular flight who fought back. Through his intelligence and empathy, Paul Greengrass has created a film in “United 93” that assures that their sacrifice- like that of the firefighters, police officers, and emergency workers in New York who died willingly to save their fellow man- will never be forgotten, and their heroism will be an example to be inspired by for years to come.