Letting go, not forgetting
- Scott R. Garceau () - July 2, 2006 - 12:00am
United 93 is not the true story of what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. No one knows what really happened on that flight. All those aboard were killed when the plane ditched in a field.

What Paul Greengrass’ movie tries to conjure – successfully, for the most part – is the escalating terror that must have gripped the 40 or so passengers as they gradually came to realize the bigger picture: that this was no ordinary hijacking, and that their commercial flight, along with several others, was part of a larger plan to bring down the United States.

There are no big-name stars in United 93. There is no rousing film score, and we can thank Greengrass for taking a somber approach to his subject. After all, people have picketed showings of United 93 in the US, saying it’s "too soon" for Hollywood to dramatize the events of 9/11.

Perhaps, and Hollywood is nothing if not a dream factory, a place where one should never go seeking the truth. While millions of young people believe that Michael Moore is an "objective" documentary filmmaker, and best-selling memoirs turn out to be fictional, it’s clear we’re in an age when truth is in short supply.

Oddly, the movie trailer for United 93 adopts a tone opposite of the director’s: it looks like a typical Hollywood movie, with a few faces looking heroic amid a series of ominous fades to black. Thank God the director thought outside the box.

Greengrass had little to go on in reconstructing the events aboard UA Flight 93. There were recovered flight recordings, several reconstructed cell phone calls, and a passenger manifest. That’s about it. We have heard tales of heroism aboard the flight, and United 93 paints a story of human will and action over fear and terror, but we really don’t know what actually happened.

Still, the film is deeply disturbing in a way that Hollywood thrillers can never touch. First, we know it’s based on true events. Second, the low-key edginess of the film takes you by the throat, and may even elicit tears of rage.

United 93
opens in silence, with a shot of a man preparing himself before a bathroom mirror. His face is not shown. It is the simple shot of him shaving his chest that establishes the first disturbing moment in the film – the understanding that what we think is going to happen, will indeed happen.

Next we see passengers lining up to board UA 93 in Boston, and here Greengrass shows their identities – including the terrorists’ – through a simple repeated shot of boarding passes running through a machine. It’s so economical a device, you wonder why other Hollywood directors never use it. Possibly because they prefer establishing characters’ identities through cutesy dialogue to reveal background.

Most of United 93 focuses on the first-class passengers. This is because, as painstaking hindsight has shown us, the terrorists themselves chose first-class seats as the best way to control the cabin. It also placed them closest to the cockpit.

Certainly one of the most chilling moments in the film comes as the terrorists, seated in various rows of first class, simultaneously don red bandanas, suggestive of samurai warriors. Other passengers look on with smirks, perhaps mistaking the gesture for a religious observance (which, to the terrorists, it no doubt was). Within moments, the cabin is swarming in panic and fear as one flight attendant is held hostage; another passenger who tries reasoning with the terrorists has his throat slit. One terrorist stands to reveal explosives strapped to his chest. Whether a true bomb or a bluff, it has its intended effect: no one makes a move.

What Greengrass presents here is a contrast between two worlds, both engulfed in confusion – the world of UA 93’s cabin, mid-air, trying to make sense of the terrorists’ plan; and the other world below, struck by horror as two jets slam into the World Trade Center towers. Since the movie unfolds in real time, we become painfully reminded of how 9/11 was a story happening before our unbelieving eyes.

We see airport personnel issuing advisories to all pilots mid-air to secure their cockpits, but through the dense system of codes and confirmations, the orders arrive too late for UA 93. The terrorists quickly gain control of the cockpit, kill the pilots, and begin changing course.

Much had to be surmised from phone records in telling United 93’s story, but it is clear that cell phones played a crucial role in relaying information to and from the flight. Passengers eventually whip out their credit cards and start making in-flight calls – first hiding their efforts from the terrorists, then conferring openly, as their fate becomes ever more clear. We see family members on the ground updating the passengers, and it must have become clear at some point that a coordinated attack was in play; CNN footage on the ground may have helped the passengers put the pieces together early enough to take action.

Again, though, we don’t know. We’re not sure when they made a move on the terrorists, or when it became clear that they were destined to be used as a human bomb.

Greengrass adopts a methodical pace in bringing us to this moment, aware, no doubt, of the controversy surrounding the "heroes" of UA 93. Some family members have complained that the film focuses only on a handful of characters – the ones who told their loved ones over the phone that they were getting ready to "roll" – yet any film must focus its narrative to tell a story.

But again, this is the problem of depicting real-life tragedy. Stories are not the entirety of real life. They are fragments, offering us only partial, fleeting glimpses. And history in hindsight can be very tricky. It’s important to remind ourselves that no one – certainly no one flying on any of the hijacked flights on 9/11 – had an inkling of what plans were unfolding in the air.

But one thing is clear: the plane did not reach its almost certain destination – the White House. It was brought down, either through a brave rush on the cockpit, or through the incompetence of the pilot (his erratic flight patterns were a matter of FAA record).

I must admit to being very moved by this film. It stirred a sort of helpless anger in me, the feeling of wanting to change the events of history. I did not find it exploitative in any sense, though United 93 is, out of necessity, largely a work of fiction. The usual media images were avoided, such as prolonged TV shots of the World Trade Center on that fateful morning. Even the final crash is blipped over, as though Greengrass wants us to take away from his movie, not the violence and carnage, but the image of an absence, a large scorched hole in the earth that, through layered shots, returns again to the green field it once was. All things must pass. But – far from some critics’ claims that it’s "too soon" to make United 93 – it is the film that needed to be made.

Letting go should never mean forgetting.

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