Like the various memorial proposals at the long-delayed Ground Zero reconstruction, only now beginning after years of paralysis, the prospect of the first 9/11 movie inevitably inspires trepidation. It is so crucial to get it right, but it would be so easy to get it wrong.
Whether or not it is “too soon” for any 9/11 film, it is definitely too soon for a rah-rah Pearl Harbor / Patriot cartoon on the one hand, or a partisan Michael Moore / George Clooney political screed on the other. The thought of Oliver Stone directing the upcoming WTC fills one with apprehension.
We are deeply fortunate, then, that Hollywood’s first 9/11 project fell to writer-director Paul Greengrass, a one-time BBC documentarian and director of the acclaimed 2002 Bloody Sunday. Low-key, even-handed, unflinching, and deeply persuasive, United 93 is a work of extraordinary restraint and integrity.
“We live in a culture where something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it.” So observed my friend and colleague Peter T. Chattaway in an online discussion about United 93.
There is surely something to this connection between movies and reality. Over and over in the wake of the September 11 attacks the line was repeated: “It was just like a movie.” The ubiquitous images on the small screen, or even the first-hand experiences of survivors and rescue workers at Ground Zero, so unfathomable in themselves, could be apprehended only by their resemblance to scenarios from the fictions of the silver screen. I felt it myself, and I was among those who saw it happening with my own eyes.
In our image-driven culture, movies provide a yardstick of reality, certainly with respect to unprecedented or unusual experiences, in a way that previous cultures relied on literature or stories (“It was like something from a book”).
This, indeed, is one of the reasons why even escapist entertainment is full of dread and suffering and heartbreak, from the childhood terrors of The Wizard of Oz to the unspeakable atrocities of The Silence of the Lambs: The world is a scary place, and we want to be ready for it. We want to know the worst, but more importantly, we want to know that the worst can be faced.
The weeks after the September 11 attacks saw a surge in rentals for movies like Die Hard and The Siege. Escapist fare, yes, but still an imaginative way of working through the stuff of our national tragedy, of seeking catharsis. The appeal of Die Hard is surely at least partly in watching John McClane defeat the bad guys in the end, but it is also vital that he spends the duration of the film terrified, suffering, making mistakes.
Still, it is one thing to watch movies that echo the national tragedy, and another for a film to depict the event itself. The 9/11 attacks remain for many an open wound. Yet if Chattaway has a point about movies making events “real,” such a movie may be, at least for many, an important step in fully assimilating what happened, which in turn is part of healing. I understand that people are not all the same, but I am not among those who thinks that the trend toward a closed casket, or even no casket, is a healthy sign in our culture. It is hard to begin to deal with the enormity of what part of you hasn’t fully absorbed has happened at all.
At the same time, there is more to the story of September 11 than death and tragedy, and we need to grasp that too. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds tapped into the horror and anxiety of 9/11, but offered little or none of the other side of the coin, the banding together, the sense of unity, the unassuming heroism.
If a movie can make it real, the wrong movie could make it obscenely unreal. Greengrass and his collaborators have made the right movie. Scrupulously well-researched and faithful to the known facts, responsible in its extrapolations about unknown events, filmed in a subdued cinéma-vérité style, United 93 offers a credible, deeply moving narrative account that seems likely to stand the test of time.
The choice to focus on United Airlines Flight 93, the single most bracing and mitigating episode in the whole dark chapter, is a key component of the film’s success. The men and women in uniform who responded to the disaster and did what they were trained to do are heroes, beyond doubt, but Ground Zero was an unmitigated disaster, a pure win for the terrorists. By contrast, the random coalition of passengers on Flight 93 who were among the first to fully grasp the reality of the post–9/11 world in which we now live, and who acted on it, gave us our one moment of victory that day. As horrific as things were, we did not lose the Capitol, or the White House, and we owe it to them.
At the same time, the film covers the entire crisis, but it does so from the perspective of officials on the ground and passengers on that one flight. We follow the hijackings of the first planes and the attacks at the WTC and the Pentagon, but only as they were tracked or witnessed from control rooms in Boston, New York, Virginia and elsewhere.
It is not until almost halfway through the film that Flight 93, delayed at Newark Airport for 45 nervewracking minutes, finally takes off within about a minute of the first tower being struck. After watching a number of hijackings on radar screens, even after seeing the second tower hit, the violence of the terrorist takeover of Flight 93 still comes as a shock.
At every turn, the filmmakers resist the temptation to succumb to one agenda or another, to gloss over or punch up any of the possible hot potatoes, from the religious context and motives of the terrorists to the confused responses and communication problems on the ground.
The film opens early Tuesday morning in a hotel room where we find a number of young Middle-Eastern men praying in Arabic, shaving their bodies, making their final preparations to die in their chosen cause. They are tense but resolute. Their dialogue is kept to a minimum. They are portrayed as rational, emotional human beings, but they remain enigmatic and somewhat unknowable. In one striking touch, we see lead terrorist Saeed al-Ghamdi (Iraqi actor Lewis Alsamari) at the gate for Flight 93 on a cellphone, making one of the first 9/11 “final goodbye” calls. As so many of his victims will later that day, he says only “I love you.” So horribly similar, so utterly different.
The filmmakers maintain a similar respectful distance from the passengers on the flight, from Todd Beamer (David Alan Basche), who almost misses the plane, to flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw (Trish Gates), who helps arm the passengers. The film honors their last-hour heroism without turning them into larger-than-life action heroes or self-conscious patriot-martyrs. Like movies such as Black Hawk Down and Schindler’s List, United 93 resists the temptation to reduce its subjects to characters in a drama, to presume to get inside their heads or explain who they were. The film focuses on the event, on what happened, and how people responded, and what it was like, while eschewing dramatic conventions of character development.
There’s no point pretending to be objective. This isn’t just a movie for me. I live in the New York area. I fly into and out of Newark Liberty Airport a number of times each year. As I noted five years ago in my 9/11 reflections, I was on the Empire State Building with my kids only the week prior to the attacks.
I attended a Manhattan screening of United 93 with my brother-in-law, who was in the vicinity of Ground Zero at the time and whose photos from the scene are still posted at his website. Both of us went into the screening with some trepidation; Dave in particular felt unready for a movie on this subject. We left the theater grateful for the film and for the experience.
Exactly what happened in the final minutes of Flight 93 will never be known with certainty. Whatever it was, I have to think it was at least something like what we see in the film. Obviously the passengers didn’t manage to wrest control of the plane from the terrorists, but at the same time they must have mounted a credible resistance that compromised the terrorists’ control of the plane, or it would not have crashed. The filmmakers honor this somber victory, and the moral victory behind it, as best they can. Whatever monument is eventually built at Ground Zero or anywhere else, United 93 is as fitting and worthy a memorial to the victims and heroes of September 11 as one could hope for.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.