I’ve never written about this before, but I have a special list of movies that are important to me. I’m not just talking about the usual year-end best pictures, or my personal “favorites,” or even the classics. No, this special list consists of films that have affected me deeply and personally. They are the ones that have literally changed me by transcending entertainment and art to become works of humanity. Schindler’s List falls into this category. So do Saving Private Ryan, The Passion of the Christ, and Do the Right Thing. This week, United 93 joins that list.
This is, of course, a dramatization of events that occurred on September 11, 2001,when a commercial jet (presumably headed for the Capitol), crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers fought back against their terrorist hijackers. Writer/director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) received the unanimous support of the victims’ families, and tackles the subject with sincerity. He shot the movie documentary-style and in real time, creating a devastating sense of you-are-there immediacy. Filming took place outside the United States, with a cast that includes unknown actors or (where possible) people playing themselves. The director also did extensive research to make the film as factually accurate as possible. By approaching things in this manner, Greengrass has made a movie that plainly – but passionately – celebrates the heroism of the plane’s passengers.
United 93 begins with the four hijackers praying in a hotel room. There is eeriness to the scene; they know what’s about to happen but the rest of America does not. With box cutters hidden beneath their clothing, the hijackers head to the airport and board their flight. Forty other people are on board the plane, which is scheduled to leave Newark and head to San Francisco. Excess traffic on the runway delays takeoff by over half an hour. The terrorists sit nervously, awaiting their moment to strike.
While United 93 sits on the tarmac, the movie shifts over to various air traffic control centers in New York and Cleveland, where it becomes clear that something is wrong on this particular day. First, a plane seems to be going off course. Then a strange transmission comes over the headset, suggesting that a hijacking has occurred. Finally it falls off the radar altogether. Word spreads that a plane has flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Is it the same plane? News reports say it was a small aircraft, not a commercial one. Someone flips on a TV and everyone can see that a larger aircraft created the hole in the building. Then another plane flies into the second tower as everyone watches. Because this has never happened before, and because there is no rule book for this sort of thing, no one is quite certain what to do.
These early scenes are fascinating because they show the behind-the-scenes people putting all the pieces together, one at a time. When the suspicion of a hijacking first hits, everyone reacts with an almost amused disbelief. “We haven’t had a hijacking in twenty years,” someone quips. It eventually becomes apparent that four planes have been hijacked. We can feel the confusion as the controllers and officials (including FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney as himself) try to make sense of the shocking events and figure out how to respond. Sliney, in his first day on the job, wisely makes the call to put a halt to all further air travel, whether it be into or out of the country. Meanwhile, at the military command center, officials pursue the idea of shooting down the other planes before they reach their targets. However, there is some question about the chain of command, and no one can seem to get authorization from the president.
(One of the most effective things about United 93 is that it never brings politics into the equation. However, as Roger Ebert has mentioned publicly, it’s hard not to think of Fahrenheit 9/11, which showed footage of President Bush sitting motionless in a Florida classroom listening to “My Pet Goat” even after being informed of the WTC attacks.)
About an hour into the movie, the focus reshifts back to United Flight 93. Again, the documentary feel remains in effect. Although actors have been cast to play the real passengers, we are never introduced to them by name. They are presented only as our fellow travelers, just as it would be on a real flight. Some of them read, some talk to each other, others simply rest. And when the terrorists jump up and seize control of the airplane, they begin working together. Using the air phones, some of the passengers call home, where they are given word of the World Trade Center disaster. This information is passed down the aisles in a flurry of discussion.
In a kind of group consensus, it is decided that something must be done. The stewardesses grab anything that can possibly used as a weapon, while a core group of passengers whisper back and forth until a plan is agreed upon. At the right moment, they jump up and attack two of the terrorists, then force their way into the cockpit. I can’t begin to describe the intense, sudden burst of pride I felt when this happened. There is a danger in making a movie like this. You can’t have it be glamorous or conventionally exciting. This is a tragedy and must be treated as such. United 93 makes you feel the courage and bravery of these heroes in a way that avoids the kind of action movie clichés that would be offensive in this context.
Although it probably should have been obvious, the film suggested something that had never occurred to me: the terrorists must have been riddled with fear when the passengers rose up. During the movie, they are shown discussing their anxiety over potential hostage revolt. When it finally happens, you can see the panic in their eyes as they realize their mission may not be completed. It is here that some of the victory lies. Terrorism is defenseless in the face of a unified American front.
We all know that the passengers on Flight 93 fought back. What United 93 does so powerfully is to show how they reached that decision. In such a situation, it would be all too easy – and even understandable - to cower in fear or panic. But these people didn’t do that. The movie shows how they were really the first people to understand the scope of our new post-terrorism world. They understood that their plane was going to be flown into a building, with untold casualties doubtless to be incurred. In the wake of 9/11, we all felt helpless and powerless to do anything about terrorism. The passengers of Flight 93, on the other hand, were in a position to fight terrorism mano-a-mano.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not it is too soon for a movie like United 93. I think this is a perfect time for it. Few, if any, of us doubt that terrorists will attempt to strike again some day. It’s important to have these discussions now, to ask ourselves how we will respond should we come face-to-face with it. The heroes of Flight 93 felt it was best to fight terrorism head-on, by any means necessary. Although they tragically lost their lives, it is not a stretch to say that they won the battle. Hundreds or thousands of lives were saved by their actions.
As you would expect, this is not an easy film to watch. It is intensely sad and it brings up powerful emotions. The final eight minutes, in which the passengers make their move while the plane careens wildly, convey a sense of fear that is nothing less than harrowing. Then there’s the final image, which has haunted me for two days now and will no doubt continue to do so. At the same time, I did not leave the theater emotionally wrecked. United 93 is ultimately a healing experience. This is a true tale of genuine American heroism, yet it is also a tale of the innate human bravery and justice that lies within each of us. As we continue to live in our new reality, it is important never to forget the actions of those who fought back. United 93 is an admiring tribute to their efforts. This is one of the most intensely moving films I have ever seen.
( out of four)
United 93 is rated R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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