Investigating ‘United 93’: Researching and Honoring a Catastrophe: Part IBy U.J. Lessing
Posted 05/14/06 11:31:05
How do you make a movie about the most emotional, horrific events that have occurred on American soil in your lifetime? You gather as many facts and details as you can, and use all of your information to recreate the events of that day as faithfully as possible. Accuracy is the key word. Anything else would seem like overzealousness or exploitation. This was the path taken by the innovative director, Paul Greengrass as he prepared for his latest feature. “United 93.”
Greengrass was no stranger to historical cinema. His first feature, “Bloody Sunday” dramatized the infamous Irish civil rights protest march during which British soldiers gunned down thirteen protesters in the 70s.
“The military eventually offered us access to anywhere we wanted to go and to talk to whoever we wanted.
“Ultimately, we signed an agreement of understanding with them, which doesn’t give them any editorial control but it does give them a chance to talk to us throughout the process and make sure that we’re pursuing things accurately. No matter what light they were portrayed in, they were fine with it as long as it was accurate. They were very adult about the whole thing.”
“The union gave the controllers their blessing to talk to us.”
Unfortunately, Bronner did not have the same level of cooperation from the leadership of the Federal Aviation Administration. Bronner explained, “The FAA, the hierarchy of the FAA …those are political appointees, were really hostile to us the whole time, but individuals within the FAA were very, very supportive and crucial.
“FAA Headquarters in Washington felt burned by their portrayal by the 9/11 Commission. But the controllers themselves even though they’re FAA employees, have a strong union called the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association. The union gave the controllers their blessing to talk to us.
“We had a lot of background discussions in some of their homes. I’d gather together 4, 5, 6 of them at a time, and just sit and talk about that day. It was similar to the military side. They’d all start to remember things. All the dialogue was pieced together from those interviews.”
Bronner explained, “The scene that emerged throughout all of this was that it was the ground level people, …in the trenches who actually got this information firsthand, were able to synthesize it, figure out what was going on, make decisions themselves, even some decisions they weren’t authorized to make, and be effective.
“The higher you got up the chain, the more paralysis there was… (FAA Headquarters) weren’t in touch with the military. The military wasn’t told about United 93 until four minutes after it crashed, and the headquarters in Washington, FAA headquarters, was getting that information from the Command Center, but they just weren’t able to pass it on. They assumed that the military was listening to their teleconference, which they weren’t.”
“…the skies are so crowded.”
The production team relied heavily on the 9/11 Commission report for the chronology, using interviews to fill in the human side of the story, and as Bronner learned more about the FAA and NEADS he began to understand why there was so much confusion on the ground.
Bronner described the system that air traffic controllers operate as one of the most complex in the United States. “It’s unbelievable how many planes are up there at any given time, and how they can keep them at a safe separation. That really surprised me - especially in the Northeast – just how dense that traffic is.
“The colonel of the Northeast Air Defense Sector from that day said, ‘If a terrorist wanted to hide, that’s the best place to do it,’ because the skies are so crowded. Especially on the military’s radar system at the time, it was very difficult to pinpoint the hijacked aircraft.”
Bronner went on to elaborate the differences between the way the military see air traffic and the way civilian air traffic controllers see air traffic, “The civilian air traffic controllers could see very detailed target blocks for each of the planes which cite the call sign, the airline, the altitude, the speed. The military radar was configured differently at the time.
“So once they started looking in the interior of the country, which they weren’t used to doing: they were mostly focused on over the ocean, because any threat would be coming over the ocean, they literally saw on their scopes thousands of green dots, and there was no way for them to figure out which one was the hijacked plane without the civilians trying to—over the phone—point out which one was the hijacked plane. And that’s why it was just so difficult for the military that day.
“They needed latitude and longitude just to pinpoint which plane it was, and the civilians are used to talking a whole different language.”
On that day, skilled, highly trained people and advanced technology were paralyzed by a strikingly low-tech attack. Bronner explained, “What struck me is that the technology is amazing. The skill level of all these people is amazing whether on the civilian side or the military side, but once this wrench was thrown in the system, that really exposed these huge gaps in how much technology can do and how much even the most highly trained best intentioned people can do in the face of a surprise unorthodox attack like this.”
“…he knew that he would have had to hit the plane with his plane if it turned out to be hijacked.”
Bronner collected many stories about the craziness that occurred that day, but one of the most poignant concerns a lone fighter pilot. “I talked to this one pilot who was a military pilot, F-15 pilot. He was sent up unarmed because they tried to get as much up in the air as possible once they realized what was happening, and he was told that there was a Continental flight coming in over the ocean that had been hijacked, and he was sent out to intercept it, and he said he knew that he would have had to hit the plane with his plane if it turned out to be hijacked.
“And he said, ‘I’ve got 5 kids at home. It was so stressful that I’d just turn my radio off and would scream.’ Imagine this F-15 pilot in his cockpit heading east over the ocean to go kamikaze a civilian jet. Just screaming. It was a crazy morning.”
The filmmakers’ challenge would be to capture the chaos of the attacks while portraying the crude nature of the attacks, “The hijackers were small. They were young,” Bronner stated, “Their weapons were very useful in a surprise attack. They were hugely outnumbered. The other three planes crashed relatively quickly from the time of hijack to the time of impact, that people might not really have sensed even fully of what was going on until it was over, and I think that this plane (United 93) … flew for so long, that the passengers had time to figure out what was going on and realize that the balance of power was not what they thought initially.”
(In Part II, Michael Bronner discusses the scene on set during Greengrass’s recreation of the tragedy, FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney and the ambiguities surrounding the final moments of Flight 93.)
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