The focus is unsettling. United 93 insists on looking at 11 September in a way that is at once expected, familiar, and startling. It is relentlessly in progress, in time and bodies. The movie doesn’t pretend to figure out “what happened,” but does provide a sense of what happens, in its own ongoing present—abstract, visceral, and sometimes overwhelmingly immediate.
The movie begins in a motel room, where Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla), who will pilot United 93, and Saeed Al Ghamdi (Lewis Alsamari) quietly prepare themselves with two fellow hijackers-to-be (Omar Berdouni and Jamie Harding): they pray, they shave, they tuck in their shirts, with knives. Their approach to the airport is fragmented and tense-making, highway signs marking their course, cameras tipping up to look at the bright blue sky.
Here the film begins cutting to 93’s pilots heading into the cockpit. These are played by J.J. Johnson and Gary Commock, pilots in real life, which gives pause. On one hand, the casting of non-actors, including some flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and notably, Ben Sliney, who came back from retirement to manage the Federal Aviation Administration’s operations command center in Herndon, Virginia on 11 September, suggests a form of homage, a respect paid to folks who do specific kinds of difficult work daily, rather than pretending to do it for a few weeks shoot.
On another hand, the casting lends the film a presumably unassailable connection to events. While some viewers may see it as exploitative, even stunty, it suggests an aesthetic, even an ethical, investment in verisimilitude. Occurring mostly in so-called “real time” once 93 takes off, the movie achieves an emotional sort of realism, with pitching camerawork and slowly ominous soundtrack music, frantic pans and hard-to-read edits. (The you-are-there look recalls director Paul Greengrass’ BBC documentaries, as well as his brilliantly efficient feature, Bloody Sunday.) Such effects are harrowing (and the abject frenzy at the end is grueling), but the film is also unquestionably thoughtful (in a rougher, differently effective way than Antonia Byrd’s excellent Hamburg Cell, which ends as the hijackers board American 11).
For long minutes, the flight crew sets up for takeoff, passengers have forgettable conversations, and the hijackers are set off, their faces strained from the start, picked up repeatedly by the camera hovering over seat backs. Throughout these moments that seem so precious in retrospect, the film cuts to FAA and military command centers, and air traffic towers, as they come to recognize what’s happening on other flights, specifically, those flying into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As officers and air traffic controllers make this realization, the scramble for information and authorization to act on it becomes surreal: strange noises come over the radio, transponders go dead, the flights drop off radar screens: people on the ground can’t quite fathom what’s going on, and then everyone turns to CNN and the camera pauses, as if stunned, on the tv monitor. And so you see again, shots of the first tower gashed, the astounding moment when the second flight slams into the other tower.
In reframing the event in and as tv image, the way so many people experienced it, the film makes a devastating appeal to collective and individual memories. It also shapes those memories, framing them with Ben Sliney making decisions when no one else would (closing down all air space). More astounding to see are the alarming unreachability of the administration (no one could contact the president or vice-president to ascertain Rules of Engagement; Colonel Robert Marr [Gregg Henry] asks repeatedly, “Can we engage?”) and the confused, even inept communications among the air traffic controllers, the FAA, and the military. No one was prepared, but very few found a way to act effectively—the passengers and flight attendants on 93 and responders in DC and NYC, perhaps. And who knows what happened on the planes headed into the Towers or on floors above the gashes?
Such are the vagaries of history, where some individuals are remembered and others are not. United 93‘s remembering is complicated as well by its sense of tribute, inaccurate by definition. It “captures a spirit,” perhaps, and makes claims for righteous vengeance (passengers kill a couple of hijackers, the brutal assaults granting viewers a chance to feel like they’re watching a more regular movie, where heroes are defined by recognizable, if panicked and dreadful, actions). And its remembering is necessarily made up, at least in its details, characterizations based on conversations with family members, but with no notion of what happened on the plane (Ziad places a picture of the Capitol on the steering wheel, though no one even knows this was their target).
In its fitful remembering, United 93 raises important questions (however reverentially) about the making of history. Who decides “what happened”? How can a story accommodate multiple points of view? How to sort out what the New York Times’ Jere Longman terms “the sensitive politics of heroism,” that is, the measures of courage and resolve afforded to passengers and crew members on 93. In creating identifiable heroes—say, Todd Beamer (played here by David Alan Basche) or Thomas E. Burnett (Christian Clemenson), names that have circulated in the ever-expanding history/mythology mix of 9/11—the movie must leave others less visible. As Longman reports, Greengrass told the families, “You cannot divide this experience into 40 equal parts.”
Using the families or their lost loved ones to various ends is hardly original (recall the uses of the phrase “Let’s roll”). The (moralized) difference here appears to be how the families understand that use, or if they are using their own special status as political and televisual force (and many members recognized this power early on, appearing on tv and pressing for investigations, memorials, input into social and cultural responses). Peter Markle’s Flight 93 (which premiered earlier this year on A&E and is now re-airing to coincide with the new movie’s release) also engaged the families’ support and solicited funds for a memorial at least partly in their name.
Indeed, the much-discussed concern with respecting the families has colored United 93 from its inception. As politicians have done before him, Greengrass visited with family members to solicit approval as well as their input, a point made clear when, following public consternation over the screening of United 93 trailers in New York City theaters, Universal speedily released another sort of ad to tv, with Greengrass explaining how he got the go-ahead and several family members asserting their accord with the timing and the film: “It tells a story,” they say, “that needs to be told.” This is no doubt true, though what that story is may be less clear. In this sense, it is like most history, not official, not even accurate, but essential.