United 93Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 04/28/06 14:20:41
For many people, making a film around the events of September 11, 2001 will always be too soon and never too late. And its easy to empathize with anyone who directly or even six degrees separated from those who lost someone on one of the planes, in the towers or the shroud of secrecy that covers details about the Pentagon. I know I saw enough footage that week alone to last me a lifetime and to hear its memory trotted out for political motivation just sickens me cause each instance lessens the impact and the horror of that day for the cynically-inclined to just say “get over it.” Films were going to be made. It was inevitable. We’ve already had a few like The Guys (involving lost firemen that day), Spike Lee’s terrific 25th Hour parable and Ash Tuesday, an ensemble piece about the aftermath which premiered just 22 months later at the Tribeca Film Festival. The smoke would begin to clear though as would our memories and we have been awaiting the first pair of major productions to come out of Hollywood on a new generation’s day of infamy. We won’t get to see Oliver Stone’s take from inside the rubble of the Twin Towers until this August, but I am here to say that while there are many stories to be told that we haven’t heard yet, there will never be a better film made about 9/11 than Paul Greengrass’ United 93.Just as Greengrass did with his masterful take on the civil rights massacre of Bloody Sunday, he takes a documentarian’s approach to the material which puts us right back to that frenzied morning where we sat glued and horrified in front of the television waiting for more details. United 93 was the final flight of the four planes to get into the air. Aboard were forty anonymous people, barely having time to eat their breakfast let alone get to know each other before four terrorists would take over the plane and head for a target over the heart of Washington. Some of the anonymity would later give way to a mark of heroism as cell phone calls to their families revealed plans to fight back with a rallying cry (“Let’s roll”) that was unfortunately adopted as a catch phrase for our government in their retaliation.
It’s an amazing story of courage that has remained under scrutiny thanks to various speculation concerning details of potential military interaction (a final title card debunks that theory) and other stories like Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman who were trotted out as American heroes at times when the country needed them and later to be debunked as propaganda.
(That is not to suggest that either of them nor any soldier, male or female, who serves in our military is in any way less admired. But when they are put up on a pedestal to serve the purposes of others, it tramples upon their memories and those of a public who loves great stories but deep down crave the truth.)
Greengrass does something extraordinary in his own manner of printing the legend by not giving way to elaborate introductions, backstories and speeches. He just lets the events of the day speak for itself and fills in the blanks just enough to avoid exploiting the fallen and skepticizing the audience.
In an opening reminiscent of Munich, we enter on the early morning activities of the impending terrorists who read the word of their God and shave in preparation of the 72 virgins. The skies look beautiful that day and it was business as usual for the FAA. But even the regularly planned exercises of the military could not have prepared them for what was about to occur. It all started with some cockpit chatter on an American flight, which raises the ire of one air traffic controller while not discounting the fact that there hadn’t been a hijacking of a U.S. flight since Reagan was in office. The ensuing procedurals of the people on the ground is as compelling as any action film, recalling the confusion and teamwork approach brought to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, although far more frenetic and hellish.
In a brilliant stroke of casting that was in no way apparent until seeing the end credits roll, many of the key players of that morning play themselves including members of the military and, standing out, FAA Operations Manager, Ben Sliney (whose first day on the job – was 9/11/01.) If this film is only half-right to what occurred under his watch that day, Sliney should attach a copy of the DVD to his resume in the future because this is precisely the kind of organized, take-charge leader that I love to see represented. To call his work a performance may be inaccurate since we can imagine all he had to do was channel that day up on his mental remote. And considering that he’s in no way an actor it would be disingenuous to suggest that he was overplaying his role in those hours to curry points with a public still unnourished with answers about what went wrong.
Whether we were watching or hearing, we all recall the misinformation and guesswork that was happening from news outlets and their sources. Well, the same was occurring within the ranks of the problem solvers. Over 5,000 planes were in the air that morning and they had to decipher who was in radio contact and who may just be shifting off their intended course. The military had to grapple with the dilemma of shooting down planes with civilians, but first had to get authorization from either the President or Vice President, neither of whom could be reached at the time. We are indirectly reminded of the infamous seven minute pause of George W. Bush who, after the second tower had been hit, sat in silence with a classroom full of children subsequent to being told that “the country is under attack.” Meanwhile, Ben Sliney was ordering all flights stopped and all airborne birds to land because “we are at war with someone.”
The goings-on below make up nearly two-thirds of the film and rightfully so since if you want to be as methodically accurate as possible, it’s best to go with the info we know to be true. Back on United 93, chaos ensues. Pilots are killed, a bomb put together in the bathroom is flashed and the passengers are pushed towards the rear of the plane. The only record we have from this point on are those phone calls made to their loved ones. They hear of the World Trade Center attacks and spread the word while others tearfully say goodbye. They don’t introduce themselves and we don’t know what they do (although one, played by David Rasche – one of the few name actors in the film – admits to having flight experience.) One-by-one, they just make the decision. Their plan is haphazard, dangerous and has no guarantee of success. And yet we are put into the position of almost wanting to be there with them. Just one more body to charge. One chance to exorcize our own helplessness of that day. The culmination is rousing, but not jingoistic; retributional but not bloodthirsty. It’s as frenzied as everything else that happened leading up to it and leaves enough room for conjecture to avoid the cynic’s eye of vilification.9/11 will always carry with it a variety of emotions that will remain with us for as long as we remain on this Earth. It’s easy to just trot out footage of the exploding Twin Towers and get a Pavlovian reaction to the very mention of it instead of culling together the resources to perfectly encapsulate a moment in our history for future generations to look to. United 93 left me stirred to the very core, proud to be a citizen of this country and angered that more people don’t rise up to defend what that means. It opened old wounds but was also its own ointment. When Oliver Stone brings the story of trapped firemen to the screen, it will play like a sequel; its own aftermath to a film to which all ensuing documents will compare. I almost wish that Stone would be putting his conspiracy hat back on and digging through the rubble after Michael Moore removed a few stones. The American public deserves to know the full extent of what led to these attacks and the way Stone’s masterpiece, JFK, captured the paranoia of the Kennedy assassination, Greengrass basks United 93 with the feelings of a nation about 9/11. I can’t say whether or not it will help you sleep at night, but it does an honor to all those involved and proves that there are all brands of heroism living free in this country every day.
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