A flight to remember

9/11- inspired thriller shows spirit in the sky and confusion on the ground

May 3, 2006 at 12:00 am

The film industry is built on both commerce and art. The goals of commerce are obvious, the goal of art less so. Whether it is to provoke a reaction or to comment on the state of humanity, the true test of success is whether a film can be its own defender. On that score, United 93 triumphs.

British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Bloody Sunday) walks an exceedingly thin tightrope as he tries to maintain proper respect for the families of the dead while presenting an unvarnished, factual interpretation of what happened to the living. The use of sound track music is minimal, the actors are unfamiliar and the narrative avoids political rhetoric or excessive sentiment.

For the first hour, Greengrass presents the turmoil and terror that unfolded on the ground on the morning of 9/11. Using interviews and transcripts, he masterfully creates a fly-on-the-wall account of the events — going so far as to use real-life personnel in many of the scenes.

Through the eyes of air traffic controllers, Federal Aviation Administration officials and military commanders, we see how shock, confusion and miscommunication paralyzed all the systems that are supposed to protect us.

Particularly unsettling is the realization that the president and vice president were completely unreachable during the two-hour crisis. Watching military and civilian leaders wait in vain for instructions only adds to the frustration and outrage. Without resources or rules of engagement, officials became so desperate to act they considered ramming two unarmed fighters into rogue planes and having the pilots eject before impact. Greengrass doesn't blame one individual, suggesting instead that all our institutions failed us on 9/11.

Once the terrorists seize control of Flight 93, Greengrass focuses on the fate of its crew and passengers. Using cell phone transcripts, official records and actor improvisations, he convincingly dramatizes what might have happened in those final confused moments.

After stabbing the pilots, the terrorists take control of the cockpit and aim the plane toward Washington, D.C. The passengers and crew struggle to figure out what their attackers want, and when a few use the airplane phones to call loved ones, they learn of the World Trade Center attacks and vow to take action. In a brutal rush, passengers kill two of the terrorists and break through the cockpit door. But before they can take control of the plane it goes into a spiral and crashes. The film's final shot is one of the most devastating moments put to film.

Even with the assumptions about what transpired, it's remarkable how true-to-life Greengrass' reconstruction feels. The routine takeoff, the passengers settling into their seats; it's all so ordinary if not for the unnoticed terrorists sitting across the aisle. Greengrass understands that it's not important that we "know" the people on Flight 93, and that dramatic flourishes will only undermine the film's authenticity. These are the people you've flown with on dozens of flights, and that's what makes their tearful goodbyes so heartrending.

Even after nearly five years, some feel it is inappropriate for Hollywood to address 9/11. The inevitable question is: Why would anyone want to watch this film? Why was it made? The virtue of United 93 is its ability to cut through the political manipulations that followed. Countless pundits and politicians have used the events of 9/11 to further their own agendas, but Greengrass' movie allows us to reclaim the tragedy as something that binds us together instead of splitting us apart.

Though the film opens our wounds with as much delicacy and respect as possible, there are many who simply won't be able to go through it again, and no one can blame them. Most of us witnessed 9/11 from the detached perspective of our televisions, but Greengrass' handheld documentary-style filmmaking puts us right into the center of the action. It's a difficult film to sit through.

In many ways United 93 strives to be less a movie and more a memorial to what happened on that beautiful sunny morning. Though Greengrass is careful to remain politically neutral, he sneaks in a subtle comment on how religion can bring great solace to some while justifying the most horrific acts of others. That both terrorists and passengers are depicted as spending their last moments in prayer demonstrates how thin the line is between the two.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].