By Brett McCracken
May 1, 2006
The events of September 11th, 2001 touched us all deeply, but at least for me, the story of United Flight 93 always hit closest to home. Why? Because Todd Beamer—whose “Let’s Roll” call to action became his posthumous trademark—attended Wheaton College, where I was a freshman when 9/11 occurred. I remember the Todd Beamer memorial service at Wheaton shortly after that horrific day. Dignitaries like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert attended with subsequent secret service milling about campus. It was surreal to me that Todd Beamer—this sudden, now-deceased national hero—had attended Wheaton just like me; he had lived in the same dorm that I was living in at the time. This could’ve been me; it could’ve been anyone. And this, in a way, is the theme of United 93. More than just a dramatic retelling of an historical event, it is a film about how humanity, when thrown into cataclysmic circumstances, copes.
Though United 93 and Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center are the first major theatrical films to have plots directly tied to the events of September 11th, the day has been evident in films pretty regularly since 2002. Before United 93, perhaps the best 9/11-themed film was Spike Lee’s excellent 25th Hour, which—though ostensibly about a man (Edward Norton) on his last night before going to prison—hauntingly captured the spirit of New York City in the months after September 11: angry, patriotic, existential, ephemeral, now-minded, stressed. And there were a wave of films in the spring of 2002—Spy Game, Blackhawk Down, Spider Man—that rode a wave of patriotic, anti-terrorist sentiment. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York in late 2002 took an historical approach in assessing a bomb-shattered and blood-splattered lower Manhattan, and ended with a shot of the World Trade Center to drive home it’s theme of cyclical violence.
But United 93 is entirely different because it isn’t just nominally about 9/11 or even fully about that day … this movie is that day. Shot in a hand-held, almost schizophrenic style, the film looks and feels more real than a documentary. It is veritas cinema—a God’s-eye view of a particular moment in time.
The visceral energy of United 93 is produced in part by the present-tense, first-person perspective as we travel back in time to that day and feel again the disorientation and disbelief of watching horrific events unfold one by one. Re-living the confusion of that morning makes for some intense, white-knuckle (and disturbing, to be sure) viewing. The film plays out more or less in real time, from the early morning hours as people make their way to Newark airport to the final moments of the last hijacked plan—United 93. The scenes dart back and forth from various air-traffic control centers or military command posts to the inside of Flight 93, and each character receives information about what is going on slowly—often conflictingly—and always just a bit too late.
The intensity and (dare I say it) thrill of this film is that we know what is coming even when the passengers do not (a classic convention of the thriller genre). British director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) postpones the actual hijacking scene until about halfway through the film, before which we just wait, wondering with the terrorists when the “moment to act” will come. When it does, it is violent, terrifying and hard to watch. And then from that point until the tragic end of the film—when passengers in the rear of the plane begin to put things together and plot an “all or nothing” attack on the terrorists—it is heart stopping.
Props to Greengrass for his keen nuance with this film, which most likely will appear on many top ten lists come December. He takes a very delicate subject matter—probably one of the most delicate subject matters of recent memory—and manages a film that is (thankfully) nothing like what detractors feared: biased, schmaltzy, melodramatic, etc … Instead, he’s crafted a beautiful work of hyperrealism and pulsating tension that is neither political nor formulaic.
In fact, the best word to describe United 93 is probably existential. Something about watching these people—this everyday cross-section that I’ve seen on planes before—encounter a dreaded fate with accelerated syntheses of emotion (fear, hate, love, memory, passion, nervousness) is very, very involving. What does a human do when they know death is coming? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more compelling look at the human will to survive—going down but not without a fierce fight. As I watched, I felt myself involuntarily mimicking the characters’ psychosomatic behavior on screen (sweating, gripping my seat, heart-racing) because I felt so near to their predicament. The film works on a strikingly human level.
An aspect of the film sure to ignite at least some debate is the way that the terrorists are portrayed. That is, humanely. Personally I felt that Greengrass’ decision to tell even-handed, parallel stories of both the terrorists and passengers was brilliant, because despite the malevolence of their actions, the hijackers were humans too, going through many of the same near-death emotions as the victimized passengers. In a way, everyone on Flight 93 was working toward the same goal—that of dying honorably.
That the film is called United 93 is certainly appropriate, for even with the disparity of humanity (friend and enemy, young and old, etc) on that doomed jet, it was a universe unto itself for those few fateful hours. Enclosed, shut out from the world, careening towards a mortal end that—above all else—unites humanity and its struggles.