United 93

While living among the mundane trappings of relative peace and calm, days of punctuated horror and profound tragedy often seem dreamlike. Such is 9/11, and such is why every American should strongly consider seeing the movie United 93.

Typically, when I watch a new film at the theater or on DVD, I can find some other movie with which to compare it. Be it the acting, the story line, the scenery, distinct or oblique references. United 93, however, is anything but a typical film.

For a culture sometimes too fixated on everything from sporting events to celebrity relationships – and various other diversions from reality – United 93 is like a bucket of badly needed cold water. Or like a punch in the gut. That’s what I felt for an hour or more after I left the theater earlier today to watch the gripping, real-time recreation of America’s still-fresh horrific memory.

Director Paul Greengrass has adopted the adage of “less is more” to near perfect execution in United 93. No character development, no flashbacks, no speeches – the director has achieved as closely as possible the effect of removing everything artificial and letting the true story guide the viewer through unfolding events with as much knowledge or insight as we all felt living through that day.

While the movie’s central focus is on the doomed plight of the heroic passengers as they rally against their terrorist abductors, much of the movie’s action is told on the ground at the Federal Aviation Administration control centers and military air command headquarters. By my count, either nine (IMDB credits) or 11 (on-screen credits) of these roles were played by the actual participants, including FAA director Ben Sliney recreating his first and most unforgettable day on the job. You relive the chaos of disjointed events and misinformation intermingled with the awful spectacle unfolding before their eyes.

And as several other reviewers have pointed out, this feature adds an abundance to the effectiveness of the film. These scenes pace the movie well and put the in-air events into a larger chaotic perspective. You’ll never see the FAA controllers, who were dealing with the more than 4,000 planes flying in American airspace, come to a clear understanding of the full extent of what is transpiring before them. Meanwhile, United 93 leaves the Newark Airport late and passengers catch a passing glimpse of the majestic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center mere moments before the first hijacked airliner crashes into them, and for several minutes they remain unaware of what is going on.

All this and more add up to an amazingly authentic, and uneditorial, depiction. The four terrorists who commandeered United 93 come across as some of the most authentically evil villains to appear on the big screen. And it’s precisely because Greengrass did not caricature them but portrays them clearly for what they were – religiously fervent, demented, yet cool and calculated, able to overcome their natural fear and trepidation in an attempt to perpetrate the murder of untold numbers of innocent people.

On the other hand are the anonymous American heroes, who had little time to think about overcoming their own fear and trepidation. Since they were traveling on a commercial flight, they never really got to introduce themselves to each other, and therefore they are mostly unknown to the viewer who is not intimately connected with their stories. The director’s minimal approach to their development identifies them essentially and ultimately with their instinctive and courageous retaliation against an incomprehensible threat with which they could only have begun to come to grips.

By phoning their loved ones on the ground, they began to learn the bare essentials of what had happened in New York City and Washington, DC, and they chose to act. Period. Quintessentially American, and profoundly stirring. Even as the European passenger still plead with his fellows to find a way to placate the terrorists – a somewhat fitting microcosm for a larger geopolitical response to the very real war we are in – the able-bodied American men on board improvised in an incredibly short amount of time to form a counterattack that should live on for generations to come in the annals of this nation’s great history.

But what is most profound about the film is the sudden and brutal transformation from “just another day” to what will never be forgotten as 9/11. People were reading newspapers, using their laptops, planning their hiking excursions, chatting about their kids, preparing and eating their in-flight breakfasts, while the terrorists stiffly and nervously interacted with one another. It is the inability of the passengers and attendants to read or detect what was going on around them that provides the clearest window into a 9/10-worldview that should seem so foreign to us now.

United 93 was filled with ordinary Americans (and one German and one Japanese) of different races, backgrounds, lifestyles, and occupations – who but by a terrible conspiratorial act none of them could have foreseen would likely never have crossed paths with one another again – who forged a makeshift alliance for freedom that beckons still to us today. Unlike their captors, none of them sought to die, none of them reveled in martyrdom – in fact, they planned to take back the plane and land it safely. Yet ironically, their own personal safety was not their primary concern. We can thank God for that.

And there are virtually no identifiable Hollywood faces in the film, a most fitting and necessary tribute. Portraying a few of those on board are David Rasche of “Sledge Hammer” fame, or Christian Clemenson (whose long, 2-decade TV resume may conjure up a memory or two) as Thomas Burnett, Jr., one of the de facto leaders of the passenger resistance.

Watching United 93 is an emotionally raw, painful experience. From the movie’s opening clip which shows one of the terrorists chanting prayers from his hotel room to the dark, climactic ending, it never lets up for a moment for a laugh or a distracting thought, but tells the grim, heroic story with an unrelenting and piercing authenticity. If you are an American, you will relive that horrible day by watching this movie. And you will realize just how much the instinctive and improvised actions of your fellow countrymen helped to mitigate a terrible disaster that governmental authorities simply were not prepared to stop in time.

In these days, isn’t that what we need as a nation? To be reminded that we are at war against a murderous ideology that hates our freedom? If you’re seeking a little diversion or some entertainment, find some other fare. But United 93 is a dose of what this nation needs.

Knowing that the family members of every one killed or taken captive on United 93 not only lent their insights but also their approval into the making of the film says it all.

You can read about the 40 crew and passengers of United 93 here.

Also read this piece by David Beamer, father of Todd Beamer, in the Wall Street Journal.

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