Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence).
Note: I chose not to include a cast list for this review because no one performance or role is singled out by the screenplay. It is a wonderful acting effort by the cast as a whole and to truly recognize any one performance, it would be necessary to recognize them all. Also, due to the nature of the depiction of real events, honoring any performance would be secondary to honoring the lives of those people involved in the events depicted.
After watching “United 93”, one of two Hollywood releases this year about the events of 9/11, my wife and I sat in silence in our dark basement for several minutes. This was to be expected. What surprised us was that after our silence my wife and I did something that more often films based on real events should inspire. We entered into a long and involved conversation. At first our thoughts on the film and the events of that day were the major topics of conversation, but eventually the dialogue drifted into important issues of politics, religion, faith, and fate.
United flight 93 was one of four planes hijacked on September 11, 2001, in a terrorist attack against the American public. Two planes successfully reached their targets of the Twin World Trade Center Towers, one was crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth, flight 93, crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers lead a revolt against the hijackers to prevent them from reaching their intended target.
Was it fate that the passengers and flight attendants on that that fourth airplane had the courage necessary to prevent those terrorists from reaching their assumed target of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.? What if they hadn’t? If one man can affect so many lives in a small town as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the actions taken on that day changed the world and the actions taken by the people on that flight may have immensely lessened the blow from those terrorists.
Writer/director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) makes the point that although the passengers seem to accept they are all going to die, they go into their siege on the terrorists with the hope that they might actually be able to pull the plane out and survive some sort of emergency landing. His documentary-style approach places us audience members in the fray as if we are one of those passengers.
Just as the passengers on any flight are strangers, Greengrass avoids any sort of introduction to the people involved. We are all strangers in this film who eventually band together in a valiant act of bravery. In retrospect, it seems disrespectful to place myself on that flight with those people, but Greengrass does such a good job of never glamorizing or even highlighting the events on that plane that it is almost unavoidable to feel transported to those people’s reality.
He is not content, however, with simply showing us what he and the relatives of those heroic passengers imagine happened during that attempt to avoid tragedy. The actions of the UA 93 occupants only make up half of the story Greengrass wants to tell about what was done to prevent the worst on 9/11. While the second half of the film concentrates on flight 93 itself, the first half depicts the efforts of Air Traffic Control and NORAD to decipher just what is happening from the point when the first plane crashes into Tower One of the World Trade Center to the point when they realize United 93 is likely to be a fourth hijacked plane.
The early Air Traffic Control scenes of the Boston and New York controllers reminded me of a scene at the beginning Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”. In that film, like in this one, the Air Traffic Controllers looked at what they saw on their radar screens with shock, not even comprehending what they were witnessing. The difference is that Spielberg’s controllers were in a fantasy where their reactions had little effect on the outcome of the story. “United 93”’s controllers realize that if they do not react immediately and intelligently many lives could be in danger. It is not important for them to understand what they are seeing. They do their duty to the best of their abilities, while others try to figure out what is going on.
It is here that Greengrass takes the opportunity to show the breakdown of authority that occurred. Focusing both on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association headquarters and command central for NORAD, it becomes apparent there is no communication between the two or with any other agencies that might be able to act as a deciding trust. Greengrass depicts the efforts of both NORAD and NATCA as noble and unflinching, but he does take aim at other entities that either act as obstacles in allowing a defensible position (the FAA) or just simply skip town (the White House).
Greengrass is not kind to the FAA or President Bush and his administration, but for those portrayed at NORAD and NATCA he shows us just how tough their jobs are with or without help from higher authority. Once again, little is done in terms of introduction to these characters and although it takes some time to figure out just who is who and which organizations we are witnessing, the audience is like a fly on the wall. We see these people astonished by what they are seeing, yet still able to function when the rest of the world was looking on.
This scrutiny over how the crisis was handled fed even more into the conversation my wife and I had afterward. I understand the President needed to disappear for his own protection, but why wasn’t there some sort of way for him to get authority to NORAD to protect the country’s airspace? I mean, I certainly don’t know a hell of a lot about what went on that day, but even I suspected a terrorist attack as soon as I had heard about the first tower being hit by “possibly a small plane.” Shouldn’t someone have been able to contact or get contact from the President to give NORAD the authority they needed to protect our airspace? It may not have changed much about that day, but it scares me that our government seemed to have so little concept of what the possibilities were that day. It scares me even more that we elected to keep those that dropped the ball on that day in power.