A Flight to Remember


In the city where it will premiere next Tuesday, United 93 is being greeted—or repelled?—almost as if it were itself some kind of terror attack. Is the movie pornography? Exploitation? Too much too soon?

Having seen it once (apparently with what the studio calls “unfinished” effects), I can attest that the film nobody wants to see is worth seeing. At the very least, United 93—as the most literal representation yet of that unimaginable morning—will hopefully ignite a meaningful debate about the ethics and politics of 9-11 commemoration.

Paul Greengrass’s approximately real-time dramatization of what took place aboard Flight 93—which left Newark for San Francisco the morning of September 11, 2001, and crashed in western Pennsylvania 81 minutes after takeoff—is best understood as a memorial. (It was famously made with the support of the passengers’ families, the press kit includes bios not of the actors but of the people they portray, and Universal is donating 10 percent of the first weekend gross to the Flight 93 memorial fund.) Like most memorials, it is respectful, premised on competing obligations to the dead and the living, and eager to stress that the deaths were not in vain. It not only tells us we should never forget but also illustrates how we should remember.

As written and directed by Greengrass, the ex–BBC documentarian who already has one skillful re-creation of a historical atrocity under his belt (Bloody Sunday, about 1972’s Derry massacre), United 93 is at once scrupulous and ghoulish, visceral and sober. Except for a few crucial deviations from the 9/11 Commission Report and the black-box tapes played at the Moussaoui trial, most of the narrative’s conjectures are circumspect. There is not a conspiracy theory in sight.

United 93 may be unrelenting, but for almost its entire duration, it depends on a grim foreknowledge that is the opposite of suspense. Greengrass, as he demonstrated in Bloody Sunday, has a talent for hectic naturalism and panoramic context—the cross talk and propulsive intercutting add up to a lucid big picture. Title notwithstanding, United 93 does not confine itself to the doomed airliner. Fully half of the film transpires in various control centers (in Boston, New York, Cleveland, etc.), as well as at the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Virginia, and the Northeast Air Defense Sector base in Rome, New York. Some of the tensest moments involve bewildered air traffic officers staring at green screens, struggling to decipher ominous radio transmissions and vanishing radar blips. (Ben Sliney, who was on his first day as the FAA’s operations manager, plays himself.)

United 93‘s general discretion and lack of inflection is an acknowledgment of the day’s outsize drama. Even the uprising’s presidentially coopted battle cry is de-emphasized, folded into a sotto voce murmur: Let’s roll come on let’s go already. (As has now been widely reported, the phrase captured on the cockpit voice recorder is “Roll it.”) But the low-key tone is also meant to signal a moral seriousness. A&E’s recent TV movie Flight 93, weepily eavesdropping on one Final Call after another, indulged in morbid voyeurism. Greengrass, who may yet emerge as the Maya Lin of cine-memorialists, knows that restraint is both tasteful and authoritative.

And United 93‘s claim to authority is precisely its biggest problem. Greengrass has been grandiose in his public statements: The film aims to arrive at “a believable truth” and may even reveal “the DNA of our times.” Its quasi-vérité suggests an implicit fidelity, when what’s in operation is at best imaginative empathy and at worst arrogance, an obviously untenable assertion that this is how it happened.

The temptation to fix on a definitive narrative of Flight 93 is obvious. The most dramatic 9-11 subplot to have wholly escaped the reach of news cameras, this unseen event exerted an immediate stranglehold on the national imagination. As was quickly apparent, not least to the president’s speechwriters, Flight 93 was an eminently marketable legend. The initial myth—which persisted until investigators discounted it nearly two years later—held that the passengers had improvised a kamikaze response to their hijackers’ suicide mission; the “citizen soldiers,” as Tom Ridge eulogized them, crashed the plane in a bid to defend the Capitol or the White House.

Greengrass’s account splits the difference between this rah-rah version and the more tempered findings of the 9-11 Commission. His point is broadly similar to that of literary critic and plane crash expert Elaine Scarry, who in the 2002 Boston Review article “Citizenship in Emergency” juxtaposed the successful revolt aboard Flight 93—which, whether or not the passengers breached the cockpit, almost certainly contributed to its crash—with the Pentagon’s failure to defend itself and the nation.

United 93, in providing a coherent and vividly edited macro timeline of the day’s hijackings and crashes, is a uniquely damning description of the chain-of-command failures and communication breakdowns that characterized the official response to the terrorist attacks. The film suggests that if the FAA, the military, and the airlines had been talking to each other that morning, Flight 93 need never have left the Newark tarmac. When it took off at 8:42, at least one hijacking was already well under way (American Flight 11 hit the north tower at 8:46). Twenty minutes earlier, the Boston control center had received the first suspicious transmission from the first hijacked aircraft: “We have some planes.” (United 93 dispels the most popular conspiracy theory by pointing to incompetence—the plane wasn’t shot down because the government was too stunned and unprepared to have done any such thing.)

But the mandate is to make a film about heroism, and Greengrass fulfills this brief with some complexity. The emergence of the revolt—implausibly stilted in the A&E movie and even in Scarry’s analysis, where the passengers are likened to “a small legislative assembly”—is in United 93 spontaneous and panicked. Greengrass and his cast of unknowns never flinch from the sheer terror of the situation. It may be the film’s most compassionate gesture—its single most humanizing touch—to indicate that the heroes of Flight 93 were motivated not by patriotism, as it may be comforting for some to think, but by unthinkable fear and a primal survival instinct.

Perhaps mindful of his target audience, Greengrass makes sure to dangle some red-state red meat. In the blurry rebellion that is United 93‘s raison d’être—a spoiler follows—the passengers appear to kill two of the terrorists. It’s the most problematic of the movie’s unverifiable events, and one might say its biggest concession to popular taste. In dramatic terms, it’s the only instant of catharsis. This act of self-defense may have happened, and the filmmakers are entitled to wish it did. But United 93 slips into propaganda with a concluding title card that declares, “America’s war on terror had begun.” Whatever Greengrass’s intentions, his film’s closing moments essentially memorialize 9-11 Bush style, as an occasion for revenge. Painful as this movie is, it’s even more excruciating to imagine how it might play in some of the country’s multiplexes.

Update: United‘s State

As noted above, this review of United 93 was based on an unfinished print. Since then, Universal has excised the concluding title card, which read, “America’s war on terror had begun.” The final caption now reads: “Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.”