Hardy Plumbing
April 26, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

The tension caused by terrorists is palpable in United 93. (click for larger version)
United 93

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I was listening to Andrew Sarris lecture in his International Film History course. I was a college freshman, and a few days earlier I'd seen the smoking north tower from the 12th floor of my dorm. The subject of the day was montage, and Sarris, ever topical, brought up the ubiquitous CNN footage of the second airplane hitting the World Trade Center.

When the plane hit the tower, everyone wanted to know at the time, why did it look so surreal? The answer, Sarris said, is that film editing has accustomed us to see something else as real — to approach giant explosions in sequences. If the events of September 11 had been a movie, he suggested, there would be a shot of the plane, followed by a shot of the unharmed building, followed by a shot of air traffic control, and around and around again until the plane struck the tower.

United 93, the much discussed, extremely unsettling new film by British director Paul Greengrass, does normalize 9/11 in that fashion — recounting the events at hand with a swelling whump-thump score and employing the familiar Michael Bay–style cross-cutting between the action (i.e., the scenes aboard United Airlines Flight 93) and the rat-a-tat tough talk of flight control centers.

But set aside the undeniable nerve in using 9/11 as grist for suspense, and it becomes clear that United 93 is, first and foremost, a useful movie: It imposes a filmmaker's order on the events of September 11, clarifying what happened — accurately, one hopes — on a day when no one knew what was going on. Even a top FAA official (Ben Sliney, playing himself on his first day in that job) expresses confusion when the north tower is struck: "Why would he hit the building?" Sliney asks, not an unlikely response at a time when the country was hardly thinking about terrorist attacks.

It's a movie that forces you to question your own reaction to the events, and to think about how you might have behaved had you been on one of the hijacked flights. The film, too, acknowledges institutional failures — in communication between control centers, in reading flight maps ("It disappeared," one of the radar watchers remarks, not realizing that the first plane has hit the building), and apparently in getting distracted by the false alarm of Delta Flight 1989.

It is a meticulously researched and mounted film. Greengrass — whose Bloody Sunday (2002) re-enacted a 1972 massacre of Irish protestors in Derry — secured approval from family members of the flight's passengers, and reportedly sought their input throughout production. (They had heard the unreleased black-box tapes from the flight.) Greengrass consulted with actual flight monitoring centers, and incorporated certain findings of the 9/11 Commission Report. And in the interest of evoking realistic reactions, he often cast actors who shared professions with the victims, including a real United flight attendant (Trish Gates) and a real United pilot (J.J. Johnson).

The most uneasy-making scenes — and the most suspect — are undoubtedly those aboard Flight 93 itself, re-created on a set in London's Pinewood Studios. These scenes seem founded on the bogus assumption that we can experience these events as the passengers did — as if it were possible to forget the outcome. Over 14 real-time stagings, according to Time magazine, the cast filmed the flight over and over, improvising their dialogue — albeit with the handicap of foreknowledge. Would the captain that day actually announce a "beautiful view of Manhattan and the New York City skyline"? (The flight, recall, was from Newark to San Francisco.) Would one of the flight attendants, looking at the still-standing twin towers, muse in response, "It looks nice out there"?

On planes, there's often talk about mundane things like in-flight magazines, and some of the passengers' conversations about their families seem invented to create facile irony. Yet for all the questionable tension mongering — there are also scenes of the terrorists praying, and one especially cheap shot showing their leader buckling his seatbelt — the human behavior mostly rings true. Flight 93 was only in the air for 81 minutes, but understandably, it takes the passengers a long time to figure out what's happened in New York. Calling their relatives on airfones, they ascertain that planes have hit the Trades. With a painful sluggishness, they pass the word down the aisles. They gather in the back while one of the terrorists holds them at bay with what appears to be a bomb. They call their families and tell them they love them.

Before pundits get carried away in extolling the movie's realism, it's essential to note that the film's authenticity, beyond a point, is impossible to gauge. The best that can be said about United 93 is that, even when extrapolating, it remains clear-eyed and respectful — far more than one would have thought possible. The film depicts the passengers' actions as an act of unplanned (and imperfect) heroism, at a moment just before that term would be relentlessly co-opted for political purposes.

The question on everyone's lips is whether this movie has come too soon. But after all that has been said and written about 9/11 — and after all that has been done in the victims' names — a sober, methodical, discussion-provoking film like this is by no means an ignoble contribution to the discourse. It's even possible that, in reminding us of how the world looked before 9/11, and of how the passengers might have viewed their own actions, this speculative drama hasn't come soon enough.

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