Director Paul Greengrass’s new film United 93 has attracted both praise and criticism for its portrayal of one of America’s worst atrocities. Since its release in the USA some critics have said that the film was insensitive, arguing that it has trivialised horrific events too fresh in the memories of a country still trying to come to terms with the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001.
This reviewer believes those criticisms do the film and the families of the crew and passengers of United Airlines flight 93 a great disservice. United 93 is one of only a few films made after 11th September 2001 that have attempted to chronicle an epoch making event in America’s history with impartiality and sympathy. Greengrass and the actors worked closely with the families to ensure their relatives and spouses were accurately portrayed. Of course, no-one really knows what happened on board United Airlines 93, as there were no survivors. But by using the available material and eyewitness accounts, and taking his group of actors through an intense rehearsal process Greengrass has created a tense and believable plot that rings true.
Filmed in almost real time United 93 begins with sunrise over New York. The first scene in the film is that of the hijackers of United Airlines 93 in their hotel room as they prepare for their mission. As they say their prayers one of the hijackers informs his colleagues “it is time”. The hijackers begin their journey to Newark International Airport; the audience can see the World Trade Centre standing ominously in the distance as the men arrive at the airport.
The hijackers enter the airport, expressionless and focused on their mission. Each man passes through the metal detectors raising no suspicious glances from the few police officers patrolling the airport. The men walk towards the departure lounge and wait to board United Airline 93.
On board United Airline 93 the flight attendants prepare the aeroplane for its next flight to San Francisco, talking and gossiping about their forthcoming plans. Nothing seems out of the ordinary as the flight attendants check stocks and supplies. The two pilots, Captain Jason M. Dahl (J J Johnson) and First Officer LeRoy Homer (Gary Commock) carry out their routine checks, discussing maintenance issues with the runway crew and protocol with the flight attendants.
The film takes the audience to other locations integral to the story; first the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) operations command centre in Herndon, Virginia where Ben Sliney (playing himself) is starting his first day as national operations manager at the FAA and is being briefed on the day’s schedule.
At Newark International Airport the passengers are called to board United Airline 93. In the cockpit the two pilots run through some final pre-flight checks, Captain Dahl tells First Officer Homer that he is planning to take his wife to Europe to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
As the morning in New York progresses the film moves to Boston air traffic control. The flight controllers monitor the movements of all the aeroplanes currently in the sky until one of the flight controllers loses contact with one of the aeroplanes – American Airline 11.
The flight controller tries frantically to re-establish contact with American Airline 11. The flight controller informs the manager that he believes the aeroplane may have been hijacked after hearing an unidentified voice in the cockpit.
While Boston air traffic control monitor American Airline 11 they notice it is dropping altitude and changing direction, heading towards Manhattan. The situation is reported to the FAA’s operation centre in Herndon and the Northeast Air Defence Sector (NEADS) where there is some scepticism that it is a hijacking. Ben Sliney instructs his staff to monitor the situation and report to him with updates.
After a short delay due to air traffic, United Airlines 93 takes off from Newark International Airport. During the flight the aeroplane flies past the World Trade Centre, which is visible from the window one of the hijackers is sitting next to.
Boston air traffic control continues to monitor American Airline 11 several minutes later until it disappears from their screens. News circulates at the FAA, NEADS and Boston air traffic control that an aeroplane has crashed into the World Trade Centre. The full extent of the damage to the build is unknown until staff at the three organisations see the news footage from CNN.
Within a few more minutes Boston air traffic control loses contact with United Airlines 175. The staff in the control tower at Newark Airport can see United Airlines 175 travelling at speed and low altitude towards Manhattan soon after they see the aeroplane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Centre, there is stunned silence.
There is confusion at Herndon and NEADS as attempts are made to get accurate information about the location of the aeroplanes and military support; aeroplanes already in the air are warned of possible “cockpit intrusion”.
The hijackers on United Airline 93 steel themselves to hijack the aeroplane. They storm the cockpit and take control of the aeroplane. The startled passengers and aircrew are forced to remain in their seats as the aeroplane changes course, heading towards Washington. Several passengers and aircrew have been killed.
Some of the passengers use their mobile phones to call relatives and loves one to tell of them of the situation on the aeroplane. The passengers soon learn that two other aeroplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Centre. Knowing that they may not survive the hijacking some of the passengers plan to recapture the aeroplane from the hijackers.
Thomas E Burnett Jr. (Christian Clemenson), Jeremy Glick (Peter Herman) and Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson), three of the passengers onboard United Airlines 93, lead the plan to storm the cockpit with assistance of Trish Gates (Sandra Bradshaw) one of the air attendants.
The heightened sense of drama on the aeroplane, at NEADS and Herndon is palpable. Major James Fox (playing himself) at NEADS is frantically trying to get his superiors to provide more military support to and contact the President and Vice-President for authorisation to shot down United Airlines 93.
Ben Sliney and his team begin the process of closing America’s airspace. Sliney declares that “we’re at war with someone” and until that threat is known no aeroplanes enter the USA.
The remainder of film focuses on the passengers of United Airlines 93 as they tackle the hijackers and storm the cockpit. The last few minutes of the film are truly heart stopping as the aeroplane noses dives and the passengers frantically try and wrestle control of the aeroplane from one of the hijackers.
United 93 is a profoundly intense and emotional film that will leave audiences silent at the end. It was hard for this reviewer not to hope that in some Hollywood way the passengers would successfully overpower the hijackers and avert disaster.
It has been five years since the events portrayed in United 93 took place but the images and stories of that day are still harrowing and awe-inspiring. Greengrass has an excellent pedigree in producing movies that mix documentary themes with naturalistic performances (such as 2002’s Bloody Sunday about the Irish civil rights protest march of 1972 that ended in a massacre by British troops) and thankfully United 93 is not the flag-waving, patriotic flight of fancy some feared, but rather gives the audience a human face to the tragedy and a real and palpable sense of the magnitude of 11th September 2001.