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Investigating ‘United 93’: Researching and Honoring a Catastrophe: Part I

by U.J. Lessing

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.

Greengrass decided that if “United 93” was going to be a meaningful project, it needed to be as accurate as he could make it, so he hired two associate producers to conduct extensive research. I talked with former “60 Minutes II” producer, Michael Bronner, who was assigned the arduous task of researching specific events that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Bronner is a soft-spoken journalist with a lot of experience researching the post 9/11 world. His “Sixty Minutes II” pieces include a study of the gaps that existed in the student visa program before 9/11, a look at Libya’s secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction, and a rare and unprecedented look inside the US prison at Guantánamo for detainees.

When I spoke with Bronner about the process of creating a historical recreation for the screen, it quickly became clear why so many of his subjects, all from different backgrounds, felt comfortable telling him their personal stories.

“Sometimes historically-based movies can be problematic”

Bronner discussed Greengrass’s expectations. “It was basically a reporting job, “Bronner explained, “I was at ‘60 Minutes II’ for about seven years and left around this time last year, and started doing some freelance writing for ‘Vanity Fair’ and some other places, and the director had seen a piece that I did in ‘Vanity Fair’ about military recruiting, and we just got to talking in general and he said, ‘What do you think about my current project?’

“And I had read about his project and his intentions to do something on 9/11. To be honest, the first thing I said to him is, ‘Sometimes historically-based movies can be problematic if there are any liberties taken with the history.’

“And he said, ‘No, no. This is going to be intensely researched, and our goal is just to tell what happened, to show what happened and not sentimentalize, not take any kind of liberties beyond that.’

“He called back, I don’t know if it was that day or the next day, and said, ‘Will you work on it?’ And initially it was a week of work that turned into seven months.”

Bronner and Greengrass have a lot in common. “He (Greengrass) comes from the same background that I did. He came up in ‘World of Action’ which was British Granada’s TV’s version of ‘60 Minutes’ or equivalent. So he’s used to being out in the world as a journalist. I think that’s why we got on so well.”

Bronner approached the research the same way a journalist prepares an article or news story, “It was a real reporting job. I spent lots of time with all the real people involved up at the North East Air Defense Sector in upstate New York, where the military response was coordinated, and then I tried to speak with every air traffic controller who handled those planes on that day in Boston Center and New York Center and Washington and Cleveland.

“My counterpart was a woman (Kate Solomon) who went and met with as many immediate family members of every single family that she could and put together personality sketches of the passengers (aboard flight 93.) So even the improvised parts were all based on heavy research.

“From mid-September until mid-November was the intensive research period where I was on the road all the time meeting these people, and then we started shooting in November. So it was incredibly fast from start to finish. Our edit time was short too.”

“No matter what light they were portrayed in, they were fine with it as long as it was accurate.”

While gathering facts, Bronner found a wealth of information from the military, specifically the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). He described the process of forming a rapport with the military, “The relationship with the military started off slowly. They agreed to let me come up there and meet some of the people, and so I sat with two of them and a public affairs officer for a couple hours and talked at length, and then I think they had a better sense of where we were coming from and opened it up much more.

“I ended up speaking to … twenty total of the important people that day that were working the floor. And once you get a bunch of them together which is, I found, the most effective way to do it, they all start remembering what the other one said and that triggers a memory of what they were thinking at the time.”

“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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originally posted: 05/14/06 11:31:05
last updated: 11/05/07 11:07:38
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