I was on a plane the night of September 10th, 2001. Two planes, actually: connecting flights from Ohio, where we had just attended a funeral for Laura’s grandfather. I remember being on layover, waiting to fly back to Denver, Laura and I watching the Broncos play Monday Night Football on an airport TV. Ed McCaffrey, the team’s star receiver, broke his leg. You could see the break as it happened, and of course as it was incessantly replayed. I remember being shocked, thinking: “Wow, this is all anyone is going to be talking about tomorrow.”
I was mistaken about that.
United 93 lets you feel that sort of assumption rising and then crumbling, over and over, because it admits no knowledge outside the morning of September 11th. It begins a few hours before its title flight boards, and ends at the same moment the flight does. There are no flashbacks, no flashforwards. There is no main character, no ensemble of people whose stories are being told. There are too many personal stories to tell from that day — how could the film choose just a few? Instead, it tells the story of the day, giving us a fly-on-the-wall view of events inside the plane, as well as at various air traffic control and military centers. Obviously, these events are fictionalized to some extent, but the realism of them feels just about perfect. Many of the people who were at the ground centers play themselves in the movie, adding another level of vérité. I believed every moment of this movie.
The film humanizes everyone, including the terrorists. One is portrayed as reluctant, perhaps having last-minute doubts. Every word the four Arab men in the movie speak is either religious chanting or discussing the attack plan, except for one moment where the reluctant attacker is speaking on a cellphone just before the plane boards. His words: “I love you.” This moment echoes strongly later as as one passenger after another makes frantic cell calls to loved ones, knowing that death is just minutes away. Every one of them says some variation on “Just tell them I love them.”
It’s an excellent film, but this isn’t really a review of it, at least not in the “here’s whether I recommend this movie” sense. If you want to see a movie about September 11th, it’s hard to imagine a better one than United 93. If you don’t, and plenty of people wouldn’t, then you shouldn’t see this movie. It is as intense and real as it could be.
Like last year’s March Of The Penguins, I suspect that United 93 will be a Rorschach blot, reactions to it showing more about the audience than the film itself. Some people, watching the desperate bravery of the flight’s passengers and their frantic coup, will immediately feel inspired to go buy newer and brighter “United We Stand” bumper stickers to put over the existing ones on their SUVs. Others will see the pure human pain, fear, and faith on the faces of both the terrorists and the passengers, and shake their heads at the tragedy of humanity. Me, I watch it and wish there were no such thing as religion. There’s a telling moment as the plane nosedives: the film cuts from one passenger to another reciting the Lord’s Prayer, praying out loud, fingering crosses, and then cuts to the terrorist piloting the plane, holding fear at bay by reciting the Koran aloud in Arabic. I look at this and feel so sad. All those people, invoking gods and spirits who seem conspicuously absent. I’m glad for whatever death’s-door comfort the passengers might have derived from their beliefs, but I can’t help but think that the comfort wouldn’t be needed if not for the actions of people who have taken various fantasy stories and decided that those are an adequate basis to subjugate, displace, or kill others who embrace competing fantasies. I’m not just talking about the people who took over those planes on September 11th. The chain of events that led to the existence of those people was repeatedly and obscenely warped by the actions of religious believers.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie was how it allowed us to watch events unfolding, almost in real time, and see large organizations respond to them in both functional and dysfunctional ways. I think that watching people do their jobs is often innately interesting, and watching them do their jobs when the stakes are so incredibly high was riveting. There are a couple of points where someone in authority makes a risky decision, one that we, with all the context and outside knowledge we bring to the film, know is right, but which at the time was quite brave indeed. For instance, a military station is waiting on approval from a lagging FAA to scramble their jets, and finally a commander says, “Screw the FAA. Get those jets in the air.”
Elsewhere, an air traffic controller in Boston hears some suspicious sounds transmitted from American Airlines flight 11. He calls his supervisor over and says, “I think we’ve got a hijacking.” The supervisor is skeptical — “We haven’t had a hijacking in 20 years.” “I’m telling you, it’s a hijack!” the controller insists. “I heard it in my ear!”
Still elsewhere, Ben Sliney, who manages the National Air Traffic Control Centre, gives the order to clear all US airspace. This is a decision that will cost millions upon millions of dollars, but he is certain. He’s looking at a whiteboard list of planes that may or may not have been taken over. “We’re at war with somebody here,” he says, and will tolerate no argument. Sliney, who plays himself, is the most impressive figure in the entire film, coming across as a smart, competent, quick-thinking manager who is nevertheless entirely unable to prevent the chain of disasters unfolding before him.
Not everyone comes off so well. Chains of communication are shown to be broken at many levels. Some desks are unstaffed, leaving critical information unpassed. Stewardesses on the doomed plane try to contact United to report the hijacking, but all they reach is a maintenance guy. Most damningly, the military headquarters are shown repeatedly trying to contact President Bush, because he alone has the authority to approve fighter jets engaging civilian planes. Bush is unavailable, nowhere to be found. Like jrw, I couldn’t help but think of the footage in Fahrenheit 9/11: George Bush, having just been informed of the Trade Center attack, staring vacantly into space for minute after minute, at a time when every minute counted. Watching this organizational breakdown also reinforces my belief that conspiracy theories are mostly bunk. Even people in power at huge organizations can’t manage to make things happen that they desperately want — is it really plausible that a small secret subset of that organization would manage not only to perform a difficult and counterintuitive operation, but to completely cover its tracks as well? I think not.
I took an undergrad lit class called The Tragic Vision, and learned there that classical theories of tragedy demanded that someone fall from good fortune to bad, and that this person should be someone important, preferably royalty or suchlike. In this story, there is no royalty — the tragedy is made up entirely of ordinary people proceeding to planned or unplanned dooms. If there is a staggering king on stage, it is the country itself, struck a blow that precipitates the death and disfigurement of tens of thousands more. I would argue that as much of a horror as 9/11 was, it was only the opening shot of the tragedy to come. That tragedy, however, is outside the scope of United 93.