Plastic chairs and paper cups, laptops and cell phones: the depersonalizing symbols of air travel. Baseball hats and tee-shirts. Boarding passes spit out of machines at the beckoning of a credit card. The herding into lines by airport and airline personnel clearly bored with their jobs and annoyed by the people with whom they must deal. Waiting, always waiting. Standing on line, inching forward; sitting on rock-hard benches, trying to concentrate on a book or newspaper amid the endless chatter of inescapable television monitors, inane phone conversations and the normal small talk of families and business associates. After the boarding pass, the security checkpoints, the terminal area, the boarding gate, the congested aisle of the plane. Who are these people? Two hundred of them. Why do I feel abysmally alone in my cramped seat? Soon we will be hurtling through the sky, six miles above the earth, 500 miles an hour, together and alone. Seat belts fastened. Seats and tray tables in their upright position. All luggage under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Incongruously, improbably in our cocoon of titanium we feel safe. Cramped, perhaps a bit claustrophobic, but safe. Presumably.
For the first third of United 93, the film’s director and writer Paul Greengrass recreates the dehumanizing banality of modern transportation. He tells us nothing of the faceless, spiritless passengers, waiting, waiting. Their bodies purchase tickets and occupy space, but otherwise hold no significance whatever. What lives do these bodies lead? What secrets do they hold? The camera cuts quickly, jerkily, between the passengers and the people to whom they will entrust their lives. Ben Sliney (playing himself) receives congratulations from the crew for his first day on the job as national operations manager of the Federal Aviation Administration, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. At headquarters of the Northeast Air Defense Sector, Maj. James Fox (playing himself) prepares for routine “war games” exercise, over the Atlantic. The flight attendants chat about balancing work schedules and family responsibilities, and the copilot coolly watches the fueling process that will turn his plane into a lethal weapon. Clear weather across the country guarantees an uneventful day for ground control. Greengrass chooses to tell us nothing about any of these people. They are ciphers who stand in the way of history’s grim avalanche.
Four men blend into the crowd. We have heard their reading of the Koran in Arabic over the black screen that opens the film. We have seen them prostrate themselves in prayer. We know their plans, but no one in the film does. The tension becomes excruciating as we want to yell out to warn the characters on the screen. But we know it’s futile; we know they will succeed. Greengrass burdens them too with ordinariness. He provides no biography. They are not raging monsters. They calmly and quietly go about what they believe to be their divinely commissioned task of murdering 3,000 people. With his gray suit, close-cropped hair and rimless glasses, Ziad (Khalid Abdalla) boards the flight for San Francisco. By his appearance and demeanor, he might be mistaken for a graduate student in computer science returning to Stanford. In fact, he is the designated pilot for the suicide mission.
The suspense increases for Ziad and his accomplices as the plane inches along the runway for a half hour because of congestion at Newark. As they await clearance for takeoff, the machinery of the other three attacks has already been set in motion. The film cuts between ground control centers in Boston and New York and F.A.A. and NEADS. An anomaly on the radar screen attracts some attention. When one controller raises the possibility of a highjacking, another remarks that they have not had a highjacking “since when, 1990?” The confusion intensifies as the truth gradually elbows its way into consciousness. Little white icons mysteriously disappear from the radar screen. Reports of a small private plane crashing into the World Trade Center appear on CNN. No, a small plane could not do all that damage. Flight controllers in Newark turn to stone as they look through the windows of their tower and see the second plane hit its target in lower Manhattan. Are other planes missing, or off course? What’s happening? Where is the president? The vice president? Who has authority to divert military aircraft from their war games to the present crisis? Who can tell them to fire, if need be? But the fighters are not armed. Communications fall apart. No one answers the phone at military headquarters, and a flight attendant reaches a maintenance worker when she tries to call company headquarters on her cell phone.
These events on the ground have been documented, and Greengrass relies on the extensive testimony gathered in the aftermath of the catastrophe. Inevitably, he has to fill in the lacunae of the events on United Flight 93 by piecing together snippets of conversation recalled from phone conversations between doomed passengers and the ground, from radio transmissions and recovered flight recorders. In real time, he tries to reconstruct events on the plane as the passengers gradually realize what is happening. Some events are pure speculation based on fragmentary evidence; some may be pure fiction. Remember, this is a film based on actuality, a re-creation scripted, shot on a studio set, edited, scored and mixed by talented filmmakers with the best equipment available. It is not a documentary record of the events.
To make the re-creation believable and dramatically gripping, Greengrass must create personalities for the hijackers. He provides few hints from dialogue, since in the interests of historical accuracy he has hijackers speak Arabic with few subtitles. Through gesture and image, he is able to differentiate the killers. Ziad, the pilot, resists the urging of a restless, younger companion to get on with the job, as news of the World Trade Center starts to reach the plane. He sits upright and motionless, mumbling his prayers as he waits for “the right time.” After they begin their grisly work, this younger man becomes the unpredictable hothead. He dons the martyrs’ headband, shrieks in Arabic at his uncomprehending victims and proudly brandishes the knife he has used to murder the two pilots and one flight attendant. Ziad takes the controls and tapes a photograph of the Capitol to his control panel. While he recites prayers and guides the plane across the lush Pennsylvania farmland, a third conspirator, who has constructed a bomb in the lavatory and taped it to his chest, stands in the aisle and threatens to detonate it if anyone tries to rush them. One passenger, speaking with a German accent, assures those in nearby seats that if they give them what they want, they will let them go. Of course, we have no way of knowing if any of this actually happened.
The passengers exchange the information they have gathered from cell phone contacts with the ground. When they realize they have been swept into a suicide mission, they rush their tormentors, perhaps with the naïve hope that one of their number may bring the plane down safely, perhaps to spare others on the ground. In their desperation, motives become both confused and irrelevant. As they smash through the door of the cockpit, the screen turns sickeningly black.
Two people in my skin wrestled for dominance during this two-hour ordeal. The first was the film critic who found the nervous hand-held camera of Barry Ackroyd and the haunting music of John Powell blending with the script of Paul Greengrass to make one of the most gripping, disturbing films I have seen in years. They treat this ghastly subject without sentimentality or sensationalism. They have reconstructed the events as they might have occurred and shown people as they might have behaved with honesty and sympathy. They let the story speak for itself. It is art worthy of the subject it treats.
The human being in me reacted differently. Why, I wondered, would anyone make such a film, and why would anyone go to see it? It surely is not entertainment. It rakes the still raw wounds of memory without applying any healing salve. It contains no new information, nor does it provide inspiration for us to overcome our present, terrible conflict with enemies who have rejected both reason and human feeling. I did not feel consoled or strengthened after seeing the film, nor did I feel any more motivated by some mad jingoist desire to rush out to seek the destruction of our enemies. The film states that its intended purpose is to pay homage to the victims of United 93 and their families. I wondered then and now how reliving that horrible day in such meticulous detail pays tribute to anyone. I for one was merely saddened, if not disheartened, at the recollection of the loss all of us suffered on that day. Awaking on Sept. 12, we faced the first day of the rest of our lives, and that is the most horrible memory of all.