Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Directed and written by Paul Greengrass
United 93 is the extraordinarily convincing faux-documentary of what might have happened aboard the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001. Flight 93 was the one that may have been headed for the Capitol in Washington, D.C., until its passengers stood up to their terrorist captors. In the struggle that ensued, the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people aboard.
British director Paul Greengrass has chosen to film these events with an uninflected cinéma vérité style, apparently to avoid disaster-movie clichés. Fortunately, he hasn’t entirely succeeded. If he had, he might have diminished his film’s plausibility, for there is good reason to believe the doomed flight followed the disaster-film scenario exactingly on that sunny September morning. Over the past 35 years, fictional films depicting terrorist hijackings have established the rules of the game. When the terrorists make their move, passengers are to sit meekly in their seats until Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kurt Russell arrives to outfox the villains and save the day. This is the scenario that seems to have been followed on the real Flight 93 until its last six minutes. There can be no doubt the terrorists counted on their victims having been well trained in civilian docility by American popular culture. Only after the passengers learned via their cell phones that other planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did they realize what lay ahead. From that moment, they bravely mounted their counterattack. In one of the film’s several convincing speculations, the terrorists are shown to be utterly incredulous as the passengers advance on them. This wasn’t in their script.
In his one misjudgment, Greengrass has taken care not to bruise anyone’s sensitivities, not even those who might sympathize with the jihadists. Such restraint has led him to be slightly at cross purposes with himself. For instance, while he shows us a group of passengers fighting back courageously, he blurs their valor by not identifying them clearly. He films their deeds in such a confusing manner that we can’t quite tell how they proceeded. This murkiness seems to have been his attempt to honor the unaccountable request made by the victims’ families he consulted. They did not want any of the passengers portrayed as heroes. Abiding by this, the film’s nonprofessional actors are barely individualized. The much-publicized exhortation, “Let’s roll,” can be heard on the soundtrack, but Greengrass has staged the passengers’ pell-mell attack so there’s no telling who spoke the words that President Bush and his handlers appropriated with unseemly enthusiasm for their rah-rah run up to the Iraq invasion. Is it Todd Beamer, as has been supposed? If so, I could not tell who was playing him. And far from a battle cry, the words are spoken almost sotto voce by a man anxiously determined to get on with what he foresees will be a hopeless attack.
Being so few in number, the terrorists come across more clearly. They are presented as dedicated zealots who believe unwaveringly in their murderous mission’s justification. Early in the flight, they sit apart from one another in the first-class cabin. In a montage of close-ups, they are shown peering over the backs of their seats at one another and the people they will soon kill. Only their eyes can be seen, coldly watchful. When we do see their faces, we notice that their lips are moving in murmured prayers. It is a sequence filled with unendurable menace.
In its presentation of pathos, the film suitably resembles many another disaster movie. As the plane ascends over Boston accompanied by portentous music, a stewardess confides to another that she would like “to be home with [her] babies.” Several passengers talk to one another about their children. Another touts the advantages of a computer program. They are all normal, unsuspecting Americans, blithely unaware that their easygoing lives have provoked seething hatred elsewhere on the globe. We watch with mounting dread as the minutes click by.
When the attack comes, it is unbelievably swift. Two terrorists rush the cockpit, banging on its door until the unsuspecting copilot, a large, muscular black man, opens up. One of the terrorists instantly begins stabbing him over and over with a wild, fanatic fierceness. The copilot hasn’t a chance, nor does the pilot, who is similarly overwhelmed. There is not a second’s hesitation in the attack. Meanwhile, in the first-class cabin, the other two terrorists choose a slight man in his 60’s to slaughter. He’s an easy target whose killing is clearly meant to horrify the others and send them fleeing to the rear of the plane. This all happens in about ten seconds. This is terrorism—abrupt as lightning and just about as indifferent toward those it strikes.
Over the past five years, many have wondered how four men (five in the other planes) could cow a planeload of people so easily. This sequence explains it better than any treatise. It is not rocket science: Terrorists only need resolve, training, and speed. In their actual photograph, none of the jihadists looked physically imposing, but they possessed all three of these essential attributes. No matter how strong and brave, untrained civilians will instinctively quail before such frenetic determination. Even if you could overcome your fear and fight back, there is the prudential question: Do I have any chance of succeeding, or will I only make matters worse? The terrorists were obviously trained to keep this question vivid in every passenger’s mind. As portrayed in the film, they had rigged a phony bomb to make it seem as if they would blow the plane up, should anyone resist. When the passengers finally realize the truth and fight back, the film presents their struggle as a Pyrrhic victory. As a cadre of the able-bodied male passengers rush the cockpit armed with utensils and a food cart, the suicidal jihadists play their last card and fly the plane into the ground, reverently screaming, “Allah is the greatest!”
Throughout the film, Greengrass repeatedly cuts to NORAD headquarters and the air-traffic control facilities in Boston and Long Island. These scenes are as thoroughly unnerving as those in the air. The controllers are incredulous and helpless. Baffled by the scale of the hijackings, they keep trying to contact the people in something called Hijack Control. But no one is on duty. NORAD officers petition the FAA for permission to scramble jet fighters but cannot get an answer. When they decide to send up two jets without authorization, the planes are unarmed. Should they have ordered armed fighters to shoot the airliner down? For that, they would have needed authorization from the President, who could not be reached. One of the passengers, Thomas Burnett, finally got it right when he told the others on board, “Nobody’s going to help us. We have got to do it [ourselves].”
Watching this film inevitably raises the question: What would I have done? I have half an answer. Three-and-a-half months after September 11, my immediate family, ten souls in all, boarded a ten o’clock night flight to Rome on United Airlines. My son, George, and his fiancé, Kristin, had decided to marry in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer retreat and home to Kristin’s mother. It had promised to be a delightful occasion in storybook surroundings, until September 11. My wife, Anne-Marie, and my daughter, Jennifer, became convinced we should cancel, lest we find ourselves on another plane-turned-missile. To allay their fear, I cited statistics demonstrating how unlikely this would be. They were not convinced but nevertheless resigned themselves to the journey. The terrorists had achieved their goal with Anne and Jennifer; they had gotten inside their minds. By late December, they would take up residence in mine as well, their occupation heralded by two more aerial events.
On November 12, an Airbus crashed a few minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport. Its vertical stabilizer had fallen off, authorities said, admitting this was an unprecedented structural failure. Then, only three days before our scheduled flight, Richard Reid, a.k.a. the shoe bomber, almost blew up another airliner. This was beginning to look like a siege. So, by the time we arrived at Kennedy on December 25, my faith in probability had eroded measurably—so much so that, as a precaution, I had dipped into our coin jar before leaving home and stuffed my trench-coat pockets with fistfuls of quarters, dimes, and nickels. Then, after passing through the airport’s security checkpoint, I slipped into a men’s-room stall and slithered the coins—weighing about a pound and a half—into a business-blue calf-length sock and knotted it at the ankle bend. Armed with my homemade black jack, I was ready to fly the unfriendly skies. I told no one, of course. I did not want to upset my wife and daughter any further, nor did I want to provoke my son and son-in-law to uncontrollable laughter.
What would I have done had terrorists surfaced on our flight? Probably nothing effective. I haven’t been trained in mortal combat. I am not a man of action. I believe few film reviewers are. Even if I had garnered the courage to fight back, I probably would have hesitated at the crucial moment, putting myself and—far worse—my family in immediate peril. And yet, I still like to think I might have broken a terrorist skull or two before going down. As things turned out, I reclined in my seat shortly after takeoff and drifted into a five-hour snooze caressed by the jet’s reassuringly uninterrupted drone. To this day, Anne-Marie will occasionally reproach me for this gross dereliction of duty. But worse than this, my gesture at derring-do provoked a disturbing thought that, at the time, I managed to stifle. There I was, an anxious, untrained civilian, yet I’d had no difficulty smuggling a murderous weapon onto the plane, despite the airport’s intensified security measures. Surely, trained zealots could come aboard equipped far more lethally.
Greengrass has performed an invaluable service in making United 93. After its theatrical run, I hope it appears on television regularly. Everyone in America needs periodic exposure to this graphic reminder of September 11. It may be the provocation we need to call a halt to our politicians’ inane squabbles over the extent of the danger militant Islam poses and which new multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy must be deployed to defend against it. If we don’t stop their posturing, we may find ourselves like the passengers on United 93 when the next attack comes, forced to conclude that “Nobody’s going to help us.” As much as I admire the courage of these unfortunate passengers who used utensils and a food cart to wage their counterattack on the terrorists, I am afraid they demonstrated conclusively that neither knives nor forks will do. Even coin-loaded socks are not up to the bloody task.