Summer 2006 -- United 93. Starring David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann, Richard Bekins, Cheyenne Jackson, Lewis Alsamari, J.J. Johnson, Trish Gates, and Polly Adams. Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass. (Universal Studios/Working Title, 2006, Color, 111 minutes. MPAA Rating: R)
Everybody remembers exactly where he was on September 11, 2001. I was taking a photojournalism course at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, and—ironically—taking part in an exercise on how military reporters should cover terrorist attacks. In fact, we were discussing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and how, by the time the bombers came to trial, its significance had been buried because Americans’ attention was diverted by the O. J. Simpson “trial of the century.” At that moment, a Navy petty officer burst into the classroom and told our Air Force instructor to turn on the television—that the World Trade Center had just been struck by an airplane.
We laughed in disbelief. As Army soldiers, being suddenly thrust by cadre into “live” training scenarios was old hat. We thought we were going to cover a “terrorist event” as a practical writing exercise. But, when the projector switched from the PowerPoint slideshow to the live “Today” show broadcast, we knew from the ominous visual of smoke pouring from the North Tower that this was no exercise.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, rumors abounded that Fort Meade was next, because the National Security Agency is located there. By day’s end, I was standing outside our barracks, rifle in hand. I will never forget the emotions and thoughts that poured through me that day—revulsion, nausea, fear, anger, hatred. And finally, relief, because I had been spared the hell so cruelly inflicted on so many of my fellow Americans. As long as I live, I never want to relive that day. None of us do.
Viewers get a sense of claustrophobia that heightens the emotional anxiety.
Thus, when trailers for United 93 began screening in Los Angeles theaters shortly before its release, some in the audience wailed, “Too soon! Too soon!” Too soon? From the morning Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, until she surrendered in ignominious defeat on August 15, 1945, 1,348 days had passed. On April 28, 2006, United 93’s opening day, 1,689 days of the War on Terror had gone by—almost a full year longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Surely time enough has passed to allow us to reflect upon and honor those who died that day.
Although Americans were generally familiar with the events that took place on United Airlines Flight 93, most of what we knew had been the subject of dry news reportage and “what if” conjecture. Now, culling transcripts of cockpit flight recorders, 9-1-1 emergency calls, interviews with surviving family members, and eyewitness accounts, writer and director Paul Greengrass has taken the threads of innumerable and seemingly random facts, and woven them into a powerful visual narrative.
In United 93, Greengrass’s masterful direction gives us the feeling that we are reliving September 11 all over again. He takes us from the flight’s takeover by Muslim terrorists to the events on the ground as the World Trade Center and Pentagon are hit by the three other hijacked planes. He follows United 93’s doomed course, in scenes inter-cutting between the airplane and the various air traffic control towers on the East Coast; he ends with the passengers retaking control of the plane from the hijackers, and its tragic crash in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
By transforming my theater seat into a cramped seat in coach, as the forty-first passenger alongside those who would soon die on that hijacked flight from Newark, Flight 93 thrust the events in my face with visual and aural brutality, compelling me to relive that day—and to recall its lessons.
Filming in “real time,” much like Fox TV’s popular action series “24,” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and his crew skillfully captured the action with handheld cameras. It’s a method I usually eschew for its forced “realism,” but Ackroyd made it work by avoiding show-offish, unnecessary camera movement. By shooting mostly with telephoto lenses, he instills in viewers a sense of claustrophobia that heightens the emotional anxiety. John Powell’s dark, percussion-laden soundtrack pummels the ears at rapid-fire tempo, ratcheting up the tension to cardiac arrest levels. Throughout the film, my own heart was racing, my brow was sweaty, and I got that same nauseous feeling in my gut that I so vividly remember from that day.
When the end credits rolled, there was nothing but dead silence in the theater where I saw it. United 93 masterfully achieved its objective of re-creating onscreen the nightmare that Americans went through on September 11th.
However, despite the fact that United 93 totally connected with me emotionally as a viewer, it suffers from the primary flaw of telling much of the story from the hijackers’ point of view. The viewer learns more about what motivated them to take over the plane than he will ever find out about the private motives of the passengers, whose dialogue is rather threadbare. We know that through AirFone conversations with relatives, the passengers found out that hijacked planes had already hit New York and Washington, that their own flight therefore was doomed, and that this knowledge motivated them to wrest back control of the plane. But we never really find outwhat personally inspired each of them to their valorous actions. We never really get to know the Jeremy Glicks or Todd Beamers. I agree with those critics who have pointed that their dialogue should have been beefed up, and that these heroes should have been more clearly drawn.
Yet I don’t think Greengrass himself fully understands what compelled the onboard rebellion. In a recent interview, he explained his film’s depiction of the American passengers:
I suppose what I most wanted it to explore was the relationship between individual moments and collective will…You can’t lead if the group’s not there with the will, and vice versa. Where does leadership come from? It comes from the desire to be led…The order of the airplane was completely subverted…They seized control of the plane, pinned everybody in the back and they were in charge, and something happened in the course of 20-25 minutes…but you’ve always got that challenge of: what do you do when a bunch of people take over an airplane? You can’t just sit there!
While acknowledging and accurately depicting the American passengers’ courage, the British director, it seems, hasn’t begun to grasp the spirit of independence that most Americans still regard as their birthright. What induced these men and women to action could hardly be reduced simply to some group dynamic of a “desire to be led”—remember, these were American, not German, passengers—but rather, embodied the individualistic, “don’t tread on me” streak that fires us up when push comes to shove.
These were American passengers who embodied the individualistic, "don't tread on me" streak.
Fortunately, Greengrass’s detachment does not undermine the movie’s strengths. One scene in particular captures what makes the American spirit so unique and indomitable. As the passengers start attacking the hijackers to take back the plane, a frightened Swedish passenger tries to block them, standing astride the aisle like a lunch hall monitor. “Just do what they say,” he lectures. “Give in to their demands...co-operate, and we will be safe.” The Americans must shove the Swedish weenie aside in order to reach their attackers and regain control of the cockpit. I have yet to see a more succinct metaphor for European dithering and condescension as obstacles to righteous American action.
Another critique—that United 93 is Politically Correct—is, I think, mostly unfounded. The movie makes no bones about distinguishing its villains from its heroes; it just does so without heavy-handed sloganeering, which would have wrecked the taut, montage narrative structure. Composer Powell’s menacing and foreboding passages, especially while the terrorists are praying, underscore their vicious brutality, just as upbeat, martial music accompanies scenes of Americans fighting back. Nor does the film disguise the facts that the hijackers were motivated by Islamism, or that the passengers took back the airplane to prevent its striking the U.S. Capitol, and, they hoped, to allow them to return safely to their loved ones.
A year after September 11, I spotted a bumper sticker on a passing car while driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Next to an image of the American flag were printed these words: “9/11: Remember. Rebuild. Recover.” I could not help but think that there was one “R” missing in that slogan. United 93 does a brilliant job in reminding us that on a Boeing 757, a group of heroic citizens taught us the response befitting a free people in the face of wanton savagery—Revenge. And the film left me experiencing another “R” as well: Reverence for the memories of those heroes.
Every American ought to invest two hours of his life in watching United 93, because it graphically depicts the inspiring acts, courage, and hope that helped spark the flames of direct action against Islamofascism. David Beamer, father of slain hero Todd Beamer, said of United 93: “This film is a wake-up call. And although we abhor terrorism as a tactic, we are at war with a real enemy and it is personal.”
No, it is not too soon for this movie. Rather, let us hope that it is not too late.