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Film: All of Us United

Director Paul Greengrass' compelling United 93 revisits 9/11

By TT Clinkscales · April 26th, 2006 · Film
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  White-knuckler: Lewis Alsamari (left) and Jamie Harding play hijackers in the tension-laced United 93.
Universal Pictures

White-knuckler: Lewis Alsamari (left) and Jamie Harding play hijackers in the tension-laced United 93.



Like many people around the country, I watched the signature events of 9/11 unfold in a surreal time frame on Good Morning, America. The confusion of images unspooling, the speculation about why the first plane hit the World Trade Center and then, from one of GMA's remote camera feeds, the second plane.

Questions, all we had available were questions. In that instant, we were children again, questioning the world, seeing something we had never seen before, something of which we couldn't conceive.

The following quote from director Paul Greengrass introduces the production notes for United 93:

"There are lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11. Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history's rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context. Filmmakers have a part to play too, and I believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something much larger than the event itself -- the DNA of our times. Hence a film about United 93."

Like many people around the country, I watched the signature events of 9/11 unfold in a surreal time frame on Good Morning, America. The confusion of images unspooling, the speculation about why the first plane hit the World Trade Center and then, from one of GMA's remote camera feeds, the second plane.

Questions, all we had available were questions. In that instant, we were children again, questioning the world, seeing something we had never seen before, something of which we couldn't conceive.

The following quote from director Paul Greengrass introduces the production notes for United 93:

"There are lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11. Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history's rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context. ... Filmmakers have a part to play too, and I believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something much larger than the event itself -- the DNA of our times.

... Hence a film about United 93."

A purposeful decision was made to include the entire quote and not simply an excerpt here because the delineation of roles is clearly important to Greengrass, and so it should be for the audience that enters theaters this weekend to see his film.

Individual and collective perspectives dominate United 93. The film is necessary and vital because it presents a number of differing, isolated points of view, frames of reference into a shockingly inconceivable moment.

As the film opens, Greengrass takes us back an hour or so before the plane cleared the runways. He gives us the calm before the storm, the prayers of the hijackers with the language un-translated, so we only hear the entrancing rhythms. Though we might not want to admit it, this is a quietly moving dialogue beyond our understanding.

And then there are more familiar images. Driving toward the airport in Newark, N.J., where Flight 93 will take off, the words "God Bless America" painted in bold, black letters on the side of a building. At the airport, shots of American Airlines offer a not-so-subliminal message. Cell phone conversations, people waiting in lines at the terminals to check luggage, people checking departure times and arrivals.

Good morning, America.

The film brings us into the control tower at the Newark Airport, which was experiencing half-hour delays that morning and the control centers in Boston and New York as they tracked hijacked flights American 175 and United 175 that originated in Boston. Meanwhile, United 93's crew and passengers remained sealed off from the terrors already underway.

From the Federal Aviation Administration in Virginia, we watch national operations manager Ben Sliny (playing himself) begin his first day on the job. The military's operation center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York is yet another location in this scrambled network of command posts that we have the opportunity to observe.

Greengrass and the producers were not interested in a simple dramatic rendering of the event. To heighten the documentary-style approach, they use men like Sliny and real-life civilian and military controllers who were on duty that morning. Pilot J.J. Johnson, who plays United 93 Captain Jason M. Dahl, and 10-year commercial airline veteran Gary Commock, who has the role of First Officer LeRoy Homer, were among several members of the story's crew whose actual experience was instrumental in grounding the actors who worked alongside them.

During the first half, as the frames shuffle between the control towers and on-the-ground command centers, Sliny stands as the main point of reference for the audience. As the fresh presence in this environment, his senses and assessments naturally become ours as the morning routines are performed. Once the perception of the seemingly random abnormalities evolves into recognition of a coordinated assault on this system, Sliny's everyman remains an uneasy center desperate to make sense of it all, a highly improbable goal for the man both in that moment and likely in this re-enactment, but his verisimilitude could not have been achieved by an actor being coached through these situations.

After the chaotic scene is established throughout the remote locations, Greengrass locks us inside United 93. It could be argued that much of what he presents is speculative.

No one survived the crash into that field near Shanksville, Pa. Airline records can document the passengers onboard. Surviving family members and friends can tell us who they were before they crossed the hatch. But who were they in that moment? What did they do?

There are transcripts of phone calls to loved ones and on-the-ground personnel, brief exchanges about their situation and news of what had already transpired at the World Trade Center. Several names have achieved mythic status for their involvement in the immediate uprising staged in those last moments of Flight 93. They gathered, made an assessment and took action. Through frantic camera work, Greengrass approximates a realistic sense of hand-to-hand combat.

Fierce men on either side, the scared souls suspended in final prayers, loved ones holding on to each other. The image of the Capitol Building taped to the controls inside the cockpit.

Who were these people in that moment? Who might we be, if we were trapped there instead? Would we fight? Would we be resigned to our fate? Would we be able to watch our own last moments?

These questions and countless others are the reason this film should not just be seen but talked about, wrestled with, cried over. United 93 deserves to be raged over, assaulted by the fears, five years later, that might still make us cover our eyes and shy away.

United 93 speaks, but not for that moment. We will never hear from that moment. It has no tongue, no voice of its own.

So often we use film only to entertain or to escape. As Greengrass said in that earlier quote, this film is about "the DNA of our times." It is about us and therefore it is important that we see ourselves in this light on that morning, but not so that we can simply codify what it means to be heroic or offer an absolute answer to any of the lingering questions.

United 93 reminds us that on Sept. 11, 2001, America was not about the few or the one but about the multitudes, the teeming, huddled masses watching in unison.

Grade: A

 
 
 
 

 

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