Reliving the day the world changed
By Lady Liberty
*** out of ****
I have a rule where movies are concerned: If the trailer makes me cry, I'm not allowed to see it. That rule is partially something of a joke, of course. At the same time, I can't claim to be a true fan of the three-hanky movie. Apparently I've never quite gotten over watching Brian's Song almost every year in high school English class, and I never managed to stop weeping like a fool every time I saw it, either.
By virtue of my Internet alter ego and involvement in almost all things political and pro-freedom, however, I didn't see how I could avoid seeing United 93. That's despite the fact that each of several different trailers made me cry. I started reading early reviews before seeing the movie, and most of those made me cry, too. Resigned, I dropped a packet of Kleenex into my purse and headed out to the theatre.
United 93 opens with scenes of several young Middle Eastern men praying in their hotel rooms. Each appears devout in his faith; with our knowledge of what is to come, we in the audience can also see (or at least we think we do) that their devotion is blind to the point of fanaticism. Soon after their prayers are done, each makes his separate way to the Newark airport and his scheduled flight.
Others are walking the concourses to their flights as well, but cameras are focused on a particular group of 40 passengers and the crew that will serve them aboard United 93. The pilot and co-pilot chat about family plans as they make their way down a jetway. The flight attendants laugh and talk about their children while they stow their luggage and get ready for passengers to board. Meanwhile, in the passenger waiting area, the Middle Eastern men join their fellows to wait.
On the passenger list, we see couples, and singles. There are young women and old men; there are businessmen and student travelers. There are those headed to San Francisco for fun, while others are traveling for business. Some are big, some are small; some are more attractive than others. In short, it looks like any passenger group readying itself for any flight on any other day.
Elsewhere in the airport, air traffic controllers are busy handling the numerous flights they must monitor. In Herndon, Virginia, personnel at the National Air Traffic Command Center take note of wide-ranging good weather. Someone suggest it's a good day to fly. Further north on the east coast, military men and women gear up for a planned NORAD exercise. In Boston, an air traffic controller hears a burst of unusual talk from American Airlines Flight 11, and he tells a supervisor there may be a hijacking. Though others find it hard to believe, the incident is dutifully reported.
Back in Newark, delays abound. The passengers aboard United 93 are told there will be a wait of at least half an hour before take-off. Knowing that the time will soon come when the suicide missions of others will become all too public, the four terrorists look nervously at each other. But United 93 is finally cleared for take-off, and does so into clear skies. As the flight turns past Manhattan, a passenger notes the city looks like "Emerald City" as it stands backlit by the early morning sun.
Of course, it's not long after that that American Airlines Flight 11 disappears from radar as it flies into one of the World Trade Center towers. While officials of all kinds in many places scramble to overcome confusion and miscommunications to figure out what's happened, another plane flies into the other World Trade Center Tower. On United 93, the passengers are served breakfast.
It's with deftly handled scene changes like these — outlining simultaneous events, and drawing contrasts that grow ever larger — that director (and writer) Paul Greengrass tells the story of United 93. Skillful camera work and brilliant edits make United 93 appear almost like a documentary (which, of course, in many ways it is). There are even moments of such immediate reality that I'd swear hidden cameras were aboard the plane where they were able to record the true events of that horrific morning. Obviously, that's not the case. But Greengrass did his research thoroughly and gave us the next best thing.
Based on the 9/11 Commission Report, transcripts of various phone calls and other communications, news footage, and the cooperation of many of the victims' families, Greengrass has put together a movie that brings 9/11 back with all of the horror and dawning realization of the magnitude of events on the morning we it all unfold. To add to the realism, the families asked that actors actually resemble the persons they play — that I recognized Todd Beamer immediately on seeing him aboard the plane tells you what a good job the casting folks did.
Even better, many of the air traffic controllers and military personnel we see onscreen in United 93 are men and women who were really there on that awful day. They were signed to play themselves in the movie (including one of the main characters — Ben Sliney, who was in charge of the National Air Traffic Command Center that fateful morning — who turns out to be a very good actor), lending further authenticity to what really happened behind the scenes.
With so much information available from these personal accounts to go with all of the other data we've collected about 9/11, much of the human side of the story is far more fleshed out than we've been able to see before. There's no question that "knowing" these people better makes the end of the movie even harder to handle though we all know the inevitable end in advance. At the same time, revealing these people to be so much like you and me and yet so heroic in the face of such tremendous fear and grave danger is also more than a little heartening.
United 93 is, without a doubt, tough to watch. I read one review written by a critic who suggested we don't need a movie to remind us of what happened that day — we all remember perfectly well. But, he went on to say, United 93 tries to do more than make you remember that day. It works to make you feel that day, all over again. It succeeds. Still, if tears are the price to be reminded of other things — heroes and patriots, our appreciation for each other, and our love for this country — then I count it well worth the trade.
POLITICAL NOTES: United 93 does an excellent job at avoiding political commentary, though some questions are (legitimately, I think) raised. The confusion among air traffic controllers and various control centers was understandable for the short while it was rampant; but the military seemed almost comical in its own tragic frustrations. Fighter jets don't take off because they can't get clearance from the FAA. When they finally do, they head in the wrong direction. Even as officers ask whether or not they have the authority to shoot at a highjacked plane, we learn the jets aren't armed (there's a brief conversation that discusses ramming the airliners if necessary). Shooting or not becomes moot when we learn that United 93 actually crashed two minutes before the military even knew about the highjacking — and that the closest fighters were some 100 miles away.
A brief notation at the end of the film says that President Bush did eventually authorize the military to shoot highjacked planes out of the sky if circumstances warranted it. Officers never told the pilots out of fear that an innocent commercial plane might have been shot by mistake. Though not in any way emphasized, I consider this point to be one of the most dangerous made by the film. The Commander in Chief issues orders, but those between him and the men for whom the orders were intended elect not to pass them on; and fighter pilots, who can carry enough ordnance in the multi-million dollar airplanes to cause some very serious damage, apparently weren't trusted to make crucial decisions in the air.
If you're looking for still more political comments on United 93 — and you can bet that I've got some! — take a look at this week's political commentary entitled "How Quickly We Forget."
FAMILY SUITABILITY: United 93 is rated R for "language, some intense sequences of terror and violence." The language is mostly mild and is infrequent; the terror, though, is pervasive through the latter half of the film. There's little graphic violence, but watching people using airfones to say good-bye to their loved ones is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to watch. As such, I don't recommend this movie for young children. As painful as it is, though, I do believe that the rest of us ought to see it. If nothing else, consider it your nod of respect to the passengers of United 93 who became the first brave Americans to die actively fighting terrorism — and some of the latest in a line of men and women who faced death to preserve the lives and liberties of others.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at