Last month, I attended the Bouchercon convention for mystery writers and mystery lovers, held in St. Louis. The final panel discussion of the convention dealt with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as the tenth anniversary of that day had just taken place a week earlier. Some mentioned an attitude I remember from that time, that 9/11 was the end of fiction, for who could read stories after such a momentous event. That, of course, proved not to be the case. One member of the panel, S.J. Rowan, lived in New York City but was out of town when the towers were hit. As that day went on, she received emails from friends saying they were okay. When she returned, she tried to get a picture of what had happened by in effect interviewing the people she knew who lived through the events. That became the source for her book “Absent Friends.” When it was published in 2004, it did not sell well. However, it has continued to sell steadily since then.
One of the panelists then asked, “Has there been a good movie made about 9/11?” I immediately called out my answer – United 93. The movie wasn’t a box office success when it was released in 2006, but it remains a potent portrait of the events of that day. It provides greater scope than Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center or Jim Simpson’s adaptation of Anne Nelson’s play, The Guys. It also conveys the fog that enwrapped that day, filled with rumors and false information, as the carefully constructed systems of the country broke down. And in the end, it focuses on the heroism of ordinary people who fought back against the terrorists and prevented the day from being an even greater tragedy.
It helped that the writer and director was Paul Greengrass, who had made the highly successful Bourne Supremacy. He’d had experience before with taking real events and turning them into a movie with Bloody Sunday, a dramatization of the civil rights march in Northern Ireland in 1972 that turned into a massacre by British troops.
When preparing the film, Greengrass worked with the families of the United 93 passengers. He cast unknown actors in those roles and then had each of them spend time with the family of the person they were playing. For the professionals involved – pilots, cabin attendants, air traffic controllers, and military personnel – Greengrass cast people who actually did those jobs, including some who were involved in the actual events of that day.
Greengrass opens the film by showing the hijackers as they make their preparations. It infuses the subsequent scenes as the crew prepares the plane and the passengers arrive with a high level of tension. The scene switches to the FAA’s command center at Herndon, VA, outside Dulles International Airport. The operations manager, Ben Sliney, has just come on duty for the day. Greengrass’s camera follows him as he goes through all the usual, mundane business of keeping the air control system working. Sliney plays himself in the movie, and the actors filling the set are people who actually work at Herndon. You truly feel the camera is eavesdropping on the events of that day.
After boarding, United 93 was put in a queue for takeoff that delayed it over half an hour. Different from the other three hijackings, the terrorists didn’t take over the flight until 45 minutes into it. On the other three planes, the hijackers struck as soon as the “fasten seatbelts” sign went off. It’s speculated that the United 93 attackers were spooked by the delay and wondered if their plan had been discovered.
When American Flight 11 out of Boston is hijacked, the reaction of the people in both the air control centers as well as Herndon is disbelief. It had been years since a plane had been hijacked. Greengrass took the unusual step of having multiple cameras record hour-long takes while using the screens in the rooms to propel the scene. The people saw on the radars and the television screens what they saw that day, and their reactions have a raw quality, as if someone had secreted cameras in and around those rooms on the actual day of the attacks.
Greengrass highlights when the second plane hits the North Tower, for that was the moment everyone knew it was a purposeful attack. From the viewpoint of the Newark control tower, you see the plane racing up the Hudson and then the fireball as it slams into the building. The men watching the plane’s final moments were the men actually on duty in the control tower that day.
Inside the cabin set, Greengrass again used multiple cameras, including one that hung from a track in the roof of the set. The track was then removed in post-production. (Special effects are used throughout the movie, but they’re hidden and used only to increase the reality of the film.) Greengrass would have a handheld camera recording a scene in the galley at the back of the plane while the track camera, or the “bungee” camera as they called it, recorded a scene in the seats. It fills the movie with background action and a constant buzz of conversation.
When the hijacking of Flight 93 takes place, it is stunningly raw and brutal. You don’t get to see what’s happening clearly, or in slow motion like a Sam Peckinpah movie, which makes it all the more terrifying. It has the feeling of a viral video. Greengrass is never overt; he simply lets the camera tell the story. When the terrorist leader clips a picture of the Capital Dome onto the wheel in the cockpit, it’s more eloquent than any dialogue could ever be.
On the ground, you feel the situation spinning further and further out of control. The military has only four fighters available to cover the East Coast, and when they get airborne they head the wrong way. At Herndon, they receive reports of several other possible hijackings. Then the Pentagon is hit by American Flight 77. It makes Ben Sliney’s decision to shut down the skies above the US understandable, even inevitable.
After that, the movie focuses solely on Flight 93. Different from the hijackings in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were now Airfones available to passengers as well as their personal cell phones. They weren’t cut off from the world outside of the cabin, so they learned about what had happened in New York City and Washington, DC. They knew that the terrorists were on a suicide mission. You see the regret and anger in the passengers at being caught in the situation, and then you see their resolve to not go placidly. The decision to fight back isn’t a John Wayne moment or highlighted by a stirring speech (see Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day for the Hollywood version of such moments). Even a line actually spoken by a passenger and caught by a cell phone – “Let’s roll” – is almost slipped into the scene.
The score of the movie is restrained and used sparingly, making it all the more powerful. In the end it is a benediction, a final blessing of the lives of the passengers who rose up and fought, sacrificing their lives to defeat the terrorists and their plans to increase the day’s destruction and casualties.
When I watched United 93 again in preparation for writing this piece, my reaction was the same as when I saw it in the theater after its release. Even knowing what would happen, I still choked up and had tears in my eyes by the end. Twenty years from now, when a generation has passed, if you wanted to communicate what happened to people who didn’t experience that day for themselves, all you would need to do is have them sit down and watch this movie. That is an accomplishment Paul Greengrass should be proud of, and an honor to the memory of United 93.