The horrors of September 11, 2001, have been well documented. Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower, our collective attentions fixed on the unthinkable scene. Hours stretched into days as we huddled around television sets questioning reality and wondering how such a thing could have happened on our soil.
Reconstructed, minute-by-minute accounts of that morning's tragic events miraculously leave some facets hidden. In between the black box recordings, government-commissioned studies, and Internet conspiracy theories lie untold stories of courage and determination that are deeply rooted in the American spirit of retaliation and our inherent desire to fight back when pinned against a proverbial wall.
Paul Greengrass draws on both fact and speculation with United 93, the writer/director's nerve-wracking but deeply moving reconstruction of that dark day. His reality rotates around the air traffic controllers in New York, Boston, and Washington who were forced to deal with multiple hijackings in a frustratingly compressed time frame. Several of the actual controllers play themselves on screen, an inspired touch that adds appropriate realism to the film.
Greengrass' mild fiction applies to the actions taken onboard United Airlines Flight 93, which departed Newark International Airport bound for San Francisco on September 11. Midway through the trip, the plane was hijacked and turned toward Washington, D.C. Passengers who made calls to loved ones learned of similar abductions and subsequent attacks. Family members have reported that those onboard hatched a hasty plan to halt the obvious suicide mission.
What happened next remains a mystery. United 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field 150 miles northwest of our nation's capital, leaving no survivors. But Greengrass has convinced me that his film's depiction is as close to what happened that day as we'll ever know.
The final minutes of United 93 play out like the last possible minutes of the doomed aircraft. A unified retaliation is mounted against the captors. The passengers (wisely cast with unrecognizable actors) storm the cockpit, with graphic repercussions. Blood is spilled. The cockpit door is breached. We can see the ground approaching through the window. The screen goes black.
Is it too soon for this movie? That's a personal question viewers must answer for themselves. Those willing to accept Greengrass' version of history will be met by a balanced re-enactment that summons the fear and anger felt that day. United 93 carries with it the intense foreboding of an approaching storm. Our prior knowledge weighs like a brick placed on our chest, over our hearts.
The director continues to favor handheld cameras that produce choppy visuals (see The Bourne Supremacy), yet the irony is that Greengrass guides United 93 with a steady hand. He perfects the element of surprise, which benefited the terrorists that day and confounded our nation's defense teams. As the military scrambles to clarify its rules of engagement - officers cling to telephones awaiting orders to shoot down these commercial airplanes if necessary - the Twin Towers are struck and another plane descends on Washington. Greengrass does take an unmistakable stance against the military's slow response time. To be fair, everyone was caught off guard that day, and our country's otherwise-mighty armed forces were ill-equipped to handle the attack. It's terrifying to discover that key military personnel tracked the rapidly developing events by tuning to CNN, just like the rest of us.
But United 93 doesn't exist to point fingers. It dutifully remembers those that acted heroically that day, both on the ground and in the air. If President George W. Bush's current war on terror began once the first hijacked plane struck the Twin Towers, then the battle waged onboard United 93 should be considered the first significant victory in what appears to be a never-ending conflict. Greengrass' honorable film joins similar memorials erected to honor the dead, standing tall as it pays tribute to the Americans that gave their lives that day in the name of freedom.
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