Where to start with this one? A sense of anxiety would be a good place… as in the feeling I had come upon me from the very first frame of United 93, lasting all the way through to the very last frame of the film where the screen abruptly goes black.
There’s no question that this is a very powerful, and important film covering what happened on September 11th, 2001 and focusing on the passengers and crew of the one airliner that did not make it to its intended target. Some have said that it’s too soon for a movie depicting these events, but I disagree. It seems to me that just enough time has passed to where the events of that day… the crystal clear memories of the emotions we felt, have started to fade. Sure, we all remember what happened, but the raw emotion of it has been blunted by the passage of time. No, this is the right time for this film, as both a tribute to those who died and their families, and a kick-in-the-gut reminder to the rest of us of what that day felt like.
The film opens showing the perpetrators in their hotel room, preparing for what lies ahead through prayer and ritual. At this point I hesitate to use the word “terrorists” to describe them, because they are not portrayed as such… yet. What the director, Paul Greengrass has managed to do here is to create real, believable human beings on both sides of the event, and as much as is possible considering the events the film plays things out from a neutral vantage point. This is quite a feat. Not having the terrorists portrayed as evil caricatures must have been, I think, very difficult.
Everything is very mundane at first (as things usually are at an airport), showing folks sitting around waiting for their flights, talking on cell phones, working on laptops, etc. We see the arrival of the four Muslims at the airport and watch them go through security. One of them is shown to be carrying a knife, and he somehow gets through without a problem.
We catch little bits of conversation from passengers and crew, all very trivial, but that adds to the sense of reality about it all. Watching and listening to them talk about their plans for later on was for me, physically painful… knowing what was to come and that none of them would survive the day.
At the airport, the runway is backed up and they have approximately a 30 minute wait on the tarmac, which stresses the leader of the terrorists, since timing was critical to them on that day in order to terrorize everyone to maximum effect. The film takes place aboard the plane, at a central traffic control hub and at air traffic control at multiple locations. Also, part of it takes place at NORAD, where a training exercise is about to take place.
The events of the film seem to unfold in slow motion, as the first hints of a hijacking come to light to one of the air traffic controllers at first as a possible technical glitch, then a communications problem and then a bit of cockpit conversation heard that bodes ill and must be verified. At the time there had not been a hijacking in what? Two decades? So no one jumped up and scrambled on this, although it certainly was not taken lightly.
Seeing the World Trade Center towers in the skyline was gut-wrenching, knowing they would fall that day.
What becomes painfully clear is the lack of a pre-thought-out system to coordinate communications between the various agencies which had a need to know about this, including the military. The awareness of the seriousness of the situation seems to take a long time to build, although it was in reality probably less than an hour or so before everyone got in the groove.
Eventually we see the dreaded takeover of the flight, as the terrorists murder the pilot and co-pilot, and stab a passenger just to show they’re serious. The frustration of the commanders at NORAD really comes across, as it seems that they might have been able to counter what was going on more quickly if channels had been more open. Yes, this might have involved shooting down the planes, and it’s abundantly clear the anguish that possible decision had on those in charge. We also see the realization of the passengers that this is a suicide mission, and that if they’re going to die they may as well try and take the plane.
We all know what happened, and as I stated, that makes the film that much more difficult to watch, but watch it we must, in order to remind us of what we are up against. Yes, I know there are some whack jobs scattered out there who think that the government blew up the WTC and shot down that plane, but they can go pack sand. Greengrass did extensive research on this and was in touch with as many family members as possible in order to properly pay homage to those men and women and to make this as accurate a portrayal as possible considering the circumstances.
You can feel the seriousness with which the actors took their roles, on both sides. This was no Die Hard take on the events: It was solemnly and tastefully done. As I sat through the credits I was astonished to see the number of people who portrayed themselves in the film, both at the air traffic control locations and at NORAD.
You need to go see this film. No, it’s not fun… it’s important.