How quietly and starkly this film tells a story that still has such horrible immediacy. Without politics, without cant or hypocrisy, and without even much fanfare, this film shows us a dramatization of a scarifying incident from real life and gives it meaning and focus. When trailers for the film first appeared and audiences (and pundits, and critics) shouted “Too soon!”, I had to ask: Since when do they need your permission to proceed? An artist that does not provoke is nothing more than a sycophant.
And as it turned out, director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) had already gotten permission from the people who were most in the position to give it: the relatives of those who had died onboard United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked by terrorists who ostensibly planned to fly it into a building in Washington, D.C. From everything that has been reconstructed about that event, they died so that others on September 11, 2001, might live. To wait for the “right moment” to tell such a story is simply asinine. The right moment is always now, and some day there will be people who were not alive at the moment and will need to remember what the moment was like.
I suspect many people will not want to see this film. No, United 93 is not a fun or easy movie to watch, but in terms of what it does and how, it is both surprising and enlightening. The film is quite deliberately not concerned with questions of religious fanaticism or politics, terrorism or war, but the greater subject of human nature in extreme situations, and literally nothing else; it is not pro-this or anti-that. It is also one of the most emotionally devastating movies I have ever seen, and earns every bit of it.
United 93 switches casually between its three major plot threads: the passengers and crew of Flight 93, the air traffic controllers who watched the whole of 9/11 unfold in their bunker, and the hijackers themselves. The entire last act of the film takes place on board the plane, and while it is based largely on conjecture and what evidence could be assembled (such as phone calls made by the passengers themselves), it sticks to what facts are known: there was an attempt to retake control of the plane, and while we know in advance what will happen that doesn’t diminish the terrible psychic pressure the film creates. If anything, it enhances it.
The first scenes are devoted to the hijackers—themselves human, and themselves victims as well, after all—praying in their hotel room and quietly preparing themselves for what they are certain will be the last day of their lives. Their prayers are heard over the credits, but not translated, and at first I thought: Why not tell use what they are saying? Then I realized it makes no difference, that a message to God is really the same in any language, whatever the human justification of the moment behind it. Later in the film there are prayers in English as well, by the hostages shortly before they attempt to retake the plane. Both moments are sobering: We always want to believe God is on our side, but so does the other guy.
The first hints of something wrong happens on the ground in one of the air-traffic control rooms, when one of the first hijacked planes stops responding to radio calls. By the time the first of the planes hits the World Trade Center, Flight 93 is already well into the air, oblivious until it is far too late. We see how there is dissent among the hijackers themselves about when to strike, how when they do attack they are scared and uncertain about how to control the other passengers. And we see, in the movie’s most painful and urgent scenes, how the hostages call loved ones on airphones, say their last words, and prepare to make a desperate attempt to break into the cockpit and retake the plane.
The most striking thing about the film is how deliberately anonymous it is. We are not introduced to any one person or member of the crew in any detail, and this is not a mistake but part of the movie’s design. In his director’s commentary for the film, Greengrass mentioned that he had shot footage of the other passengers awakening and arriving at the airport, but discarded it because it added an air of contrivance. The way the movie is now, we meet the passengers at the same time as everyone else. Think about it: on a plane, you maybe get to know the guy next to you, if even that, and if you were plunged into something this horrible that’s all you’d have time to know.
Here and there, however, there are clues about their lives—like the passenger who says “I love you” to someone on the phone (in German) just before boarding. Most saddening for me was the fellow who comes rushing happily through the gate just before the final boarding call; it’s made all the more poignant by the way it is given the same equal, cursory attention as everything else going on at the time. The actors are all mostly unknowns—the only familiar names for me in the credits were David Rasche (as someone who might be able to fly the plane) and Chip Zien, and I didn’t even recognize them on sight. Most intriguing are the people who elected to play themselves and essentially recreate their roles from real life—such as air-traffic controller chief Ben Sliney, who struggles with unresponsive military liaisons and bad ATC data, and finally decides to ground every flight in American airspace.
Two other films have been made about this incident, but neither of them were assembled with this kind of artistry or intelligence. The movie hammers nothing home and assumes everything that needs to speak for itself, will. It happens to us, envelopes us, and for a time becomes the limits of our world. This is not a movie about profound disaster, as it might merely have been in the hands of lesser filmmakers, but profound empathy.