Despite the highly speculative nature of the scenes set aboard the ill-fated flight, nothing about Paul Greengrass’s United 93 rings false. The heroics of the titular plane’s doomed passengers are not hyped-up or Rambo-ized, but carry a sufficiently believable air of fear and desperation to let you believe that, if it didn’t happen exactly this way, the real events were not far off.
The director’s documentary background is well-suited to this project. The camerawork has an unobtrusive “fly-on-the-wall” quality that almost convinces the viewer that Greengrass had cameras rolling in the air and on the ground as the events unfolded. Further enhancing the illusion of total reality is the lack of recognizable actors on screen. A few actors are of the “what’s-his-name-again?” level of celebrity but other than that, no one on the screen is any more familiar to you than any random person you might meet on the street.
In addition to the largely anonymous cast, many of the roles in the air traffic control centers and military command posts are played by people who actually lived the events portrayed on screen. Key among these is Ben Sliney, the FAA’s national director of operations, who took over that job on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and endured an unimaginable baptism of fire. It is through the eyes of Sliney and others that we experience the events as many of us did, except that these people were aware that something was amiss long before the rest of us.
The events of that day play out in real time, and much like I remembered. It’s not very comforting to realize that those in charge of the situation were almost as confused and grasping for reliable information as the rest of us. We see people doing the best they can, making the right decisions at the moment, based on incomplete and often conflicting information. Did American flight 11 crash into the North Tower or was it headed to Washington, D.C.? Was Delta flight 1989 hijacked or not? The film successfully makes us feel the shock as the controllers slowly come to realize the scope of what is happening, piece by piece, seeing the terrorist attacks through same eyes we did: the television cameras.
Aboard flight 93, we watch as the passengers board and the plane waits to take off from the crowded runways of Newark airport. These scenes play out with a sense of prosaic normality that only ratchets up the sense of dread for us who know what’s coming. The passengers and crew of United 93 are allowed to live quietly in those last few hours of normality and innocence of the world before 9/11. The first few minutes are so ordinary that the viewer is almost lulled into thinking that maybe, this time, United flight 93 will make it safely to San Francisco.
One criticism of the film is that we don’t get to know anything about the people on the plane, but this is it’s greatest strength. We know exactly what we would if we were another passenger aboard that flight. We heard snippets of conversation that give us a sense that these are people no different from the rest of us. We don’t need to “explore their motivation” because once events start to unfold, we understand their reasons instinctively.
The only persons aware of what is about to happen are the four terrorists, who fidget nervous, visibly gripped by fear and uncertainty. Are they afraid of their impending deaths or of the possibility that they might fail in their mission? The film doesn’t presume to guess.
When the terrorists do strike, the attack is quick and brutal. Passengers, flight attendants and pilots are stabbed and slashed as the terrorists quickly gain control of the aircraft, herding the passengers into the rear with what appears to be a bomb. These scenes are not gratuitously graphic but they are harsh and shocking, fully justifying the palpable terror that we are allowed to feel along with the rest of the people on board the plane.
After the passengers begin to contact loved ones on the ground and realize the full scope of what is happening, the decision to act is made quietly, almost without words, as one passenger turns to the others and says simply, “This is a suicide mission.” In other words, there is no longer any reason to cooperate. If the terrorists’ bomb is real, the plane will be destroyed but lives will be spared on the ground. If it’s fake, they might just be able to take back the aircraft. Of course, we know the end result but somehow I still found clenching the arm of the chair, desperately wishing for them to succeed, which, of course, they did. Flight 93 did not strike the White House or the Capitol building and we owe that to a handful of very ordinary people like us.
It is that one fact about United 93 that gives me the most comfort, that the most unremarkable among us can rise to such an occasion, and it is that quiet heroism of average, desperate people that United 93, the film, portrays with empathy and brilliant clarity.
Of the four aircraft hijacked that day, United 93 was the only one that did not reach its target. It crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03am. No one survived.