How does a proud nation explain a disaster to itself?
America suffered a collective trauma when Islamist terrorists flew three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crashed a fourth in rural Pennsylvania. Stunned by the devastation of the attack, the United States initially found the meaning of Sept. 11 less in its relationship to the rest of the world than in the sacrifice of heroes. Fallen firefighters became American martyrs in, for instance, the stage play The Guys and its 2002 film adaptation.
Paul Greengrass' film United 93 extends the legend of United Airlines Flight 93, which is strongly believed to have crashed thanks to the resistance of its passengers, rather than reach its suspected target of the U.S. Capitol. Neil Young took the title of his tribute song "Let's Roll" from the words of passenger Todd M. Beamer before a group of commuters allegedly rushed the hijackers.
Forty-four passengers, crew and terrorists died when the 747 crashed outside Shanksville, Penn. With no survivors to interview, our knowledge of the events relies primarily on cell phone calls made during the flight. Any dramatization must be conjecture, so Greengrass -- in writing and directing United 93 -- faced the choice of either wild speculation or a bare-bones rendition of events. United 93 chooses the latter for a respectful and often powerful docudrama, yet one that, of necessity, keeps us at a distance to the men and women involved.
United 93 begins with four hijackers praying to Allah in a hotel room, then traveling to the Newark airport to meet the fateful flight. Greengrass' signature hand-held cameras and quick editing that marked The Bourne Supremacy cultivates a tense atmosphere, even though the details of air travel prove mundane. From our post-9/11 vantage point, we notice things like security checkpoints that don't require the removal of shoes, or distant glimpses of the World Trade Center, still standing for just a few more minutes.
For its first hour, United 93 proves to be less about a single flight but about the perspective from different civilian and military air traffic control centers. The first sign of things going awry comes from Boston, when American Airlines 11 does not respond and a controller suspects a hijacking. Shortly after the flight goes off the radar, someone at the Newark airport sees smoke billowing from the World Trade Center towers.
Where were you the morning of Sept. 11? United 93 will bring back your memories. One group of controllers emits a shocked gasp when they turn on CNN and see a crater in the side of a skyscraper, and later, others gasp with horror when they watch a plane crash into the second tower on live television. In these scenes, Greengrass casts numerous people as themselves, including Ben Sliney, an FAA national operations manager who emerges as the central character. It's crackingly exciting when Sliney and his fellow air traffic honchos across the country try to cut through red tape and figure out what's happening.
On United 93, the terrorists make their move, kill the pilot and co-pilot and drive the passengers to the tail of the plane. Since the film is largely populated by unknowns and spends little time with any of them, we only know a few of them by face: the blond stewardess, the take-charge middle-aged guy, etc.
Greengrass could easily have taken an approach like the old Airport disaster movies and concocted minidramas about, say, a put-upon middle manager who finds inner courage, a bored married couple that renew love at verge of death, etc. It's a relief that Greengrass never stoops to such methods. When you hear "Let's roll," it's not an action movie catch-phrase, but just one line among others.
But had we heard, for instance, more of the cell phone conversations -- here captured only in short sentences -- we may have had a greater sense of the flight's passengers as individuals. United 93's heroes blur together as a group of terrorized Americans (most of whom happen to be white men) who strike back against vicious terrorists.
I don't have a problem with demonizing terrorists -- they are, after all, terrorists, but United 93 could be misinterpreted as a call to treat all Muslims with suspicion. United 93 may be easily misused for renewed jingoism: I read an online comment that said, "I am so happy that the Media has decided to remind us again why we are fighting the war in Iraq." (Never mind that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.)
The film could contain a subtler interpretation, however. On the ground, we get a sense that communications aren't flowing the way they should, and that panic spreads more quickly than fact. Such scenes could provide a metaphor for the lack of cooperation and preparedness among, say, intelligence agencies before Sept. 11. When Air Force officers seek the authority to shoot down the hijacked planes, they repeatedly ask, "Where's the president?" Fairly or not, we mentally recall President Bush in a Florida classroom, listening to someone read aloud a book called The Pet Goat.
The final text before the closing credits explains Greengrass' emphasis on the Air Force's logistics. No military planes could have intercepted United 93, so the passenger revolt may have been the only thing that saved a Washington target. United 93 pays powerful homage to their heroism, but otherwise emerges as a kind of political Rorschach blot. Its meaning lies in the minds of the audiences that see it.