On the darkest day for the United States in the 21st century, the story of courage by the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 in thwarting the attempts of hijackers to crash their plane into the U.S. Capitol stood clearly as a bright, shining ray of hope.
The first in a series of Hollywood portrayals of the Sept. 11 tragedy, United 93
, is at its best for the way it re-creates the feelings of shock and bewilderment, and especially the gradual realization of the meaning of the series of events as they unfolded. For those of us who paid close attention to the events as they developed on Sept. 11, it carries us immediately back to the feelings we experienced on that day.
But United 93
goes one step further. Indeed, it takes viewers behind the scenes at the National Air Traffic Control Center, several regional centers, a number of airport towers and on flight 93, itself. The resulting 1-hour and 51-minute film quickly takes us chronologically through the facts that took weeks and months to become public through news reports and investigations.
As we watch, we see federal and regional aviation officials begin to piece together the facts from faulty transmissions, air data and actual news reports. And we view a system that had gaps between decisions and actions at many points, most notably with the mobilization of the U.S. military. Yet with the tremendous attention to factual details throughout the film, there is one scene that every viewer will expect to see based on the dialog within United 93
itself, yet which never materializes.
Amid a discussion about authority for the military to shoot down unresponsive and presumably hijacked airliners, it is established that such authority can only come from the president or the vice president. It is clear that the president is spending the day in Sarasota, Fla., and even airspace restrictions for the region were discussed near the film’s opening. Yet well-known footage of President Bush reading to schoolchildren and receiving word of the attacks is not incorporated into this otherwise excellent summary of the day’s events.
This is a glaring omission, particularly in light of the heightened attention given to President Bush’s response in Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11
. In that film, Moore famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) argued that President Bush’s indecisiveness was demonstrated when he continued reading a book to Sarasota, Fla., schoolchildren after being informed that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center. If such footage were included in United 93
, it would have placed the president’s response in the context of how others, also with partial information, were responding at the same time. Indeed, one of the admirable characterizations is the decisiveness of Ben Sliney, who plays himself in the film, on his first day on the job as FAA operations manager in Herndon, Va. Sliney gave the unprecedented order to immediately ground all airlines.
The film opens with a shot of the hijacker who eventually piloted United 93 reading from the Qu’ran, the sacred text of Islam. Gathered in a non-distinct hotel room, the hijackers say their morning prayers before departing on their suicidal mission starting from the Newark, N.J., airport. The portrayal of the United 93 terrorists is remarkably evenhanded. Perhaps the film’s most interesting juxtaposition occurs as United 93 passengers are reciting The Lord’s Prayer while the terrorists are saying prayers of their own.
Commendably, United 93
is not a star vehicle. Instead writer/director Paul Greengrass cast unknown actors in most roles and used actual U.S. military air-traffic controllers as themselves.
Yet in depicting all the passengers of United 93 as the film’s protagonist or collective hero, Greengrass fails to help us understand the various motivations of the passengers. While the film is gripping and powerful because of its proximity to the actual event, its characters fail to touch us emotionally. The final result is a safe and satisfying depiction of the day’s events, but nothing that tells us anymore about ourselves as a people.
Finally, viewers will find United 93
an extremely difficult film to watch – not just because of the violence. While use of a handheld camera for shots during the hijacking is effective at showing the ensuing chaos, Greengrass uses this effect throughout most of the film, which makes for a dizzying experience.
The film ends in a field near Shanksville, Pa. But the story continues to impact our lives.