It was a morning that started like every other but ended unlike any other. While some made their way to work, others made their way to their couch, both with coffee in hand. Others still scurried about the Newark airport, carrying the same coffees and carrying on about everything and nothing on their cell phones. Everyone was so busy pretending their lives were so important, that their problems were so serious, that it mattered whether or not you got CC’d on that memo, that they didn’t see it coming. Amidst the windstorm of excess, greed and selfishness, a hatred had been brewing and was about to boil over. Paul Greengrass’ UNITED 93 tries to pinpoint exactly when that happened by taking the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, and placing it under a microscope. The experiment’s results are intense, emotional and life affirming. And with a few years worth of distance between that morning and now, we can look back and begin to ask why instead of just how.
It must have been a daunting task to write this film and then find the bravery to make it. Greengrass must have known how hesitant people would be to see this film and how disturbing it would be for those who did. He must have also known the risks he could run by sensationalizing the hijackings or trivializing the last moments of the real lives his actors were reenacting. Why else would he choose to cast no household name actors? Why would he choose to keep the actors cast to portray the four terrorists, who violently took over United Airlines Flight 93 with the goal of flying it directly into the White House, separate from the actors portraying the passengers or flight crew throughout shooting? Why else would he have spoken extensively with the victims families to perfect details like what they were wearing that day or what they may have been listening to on their walkman? He must have wanted to be as true to reality as possible, to respect and honour the hardship and tragedy the passengers on Flight 93 endured, as well as the devastating impact the combined day’s events had on the country as a whole. By not casting easily recognizable actors, the average viewer has a simpler time connecting with the average looking face on the screen. By keeping his actors separate during the shoot and its off hours, Greengrass set out to reinforce the distance between the groups and make the alienation of the terrorists palpable. And finally, by paying attention to character details, he exhibits a strong respect for the dead and deep sympathy for the bereaved. And though we may learn very little about the people on board, the little we do learn is hard enough to deal with as they accept their fates.
UNITED 93 is a tribute to the pain and sorrow that engulfed that particular Tuesday. Greengrass has crafted a unique interaction that transports the viewer back to that day, to that headspace and proceeds to offer a healing of the mind and soul that can only come by facing the darkness you’ve ran from. He does not presume what might have been going through the terrorists’ minds while they executed their attack, choosing instead to simply show them as determined but scared, like any human being would be. He does not claim to know why they attacked the United States, but merely shows them as lost amidst an inundation of consumerism and meaninglessness, allowing for the viewers to speculate and ultimately decide for themselves. He does not insinuate that the American government took too long to acknowledge what was happening and react appropriately. Instead he shows the men and women of the army and traffic control as always one step behind, yet with an air of forgiveness because who wouldn’t be in that situation? And perhaps most importantly, when it comes time to take back the control of Flight 93, Greengrass does not have the passengers fight back in the name of the U.S.A.; they fight back because they want to live, because they value life.
Understanding the events of September 11, 2001, took some people contextualizing them as scenes in a movie, because only a good screenwriter could have devised such a sinister and horrifying plot. Thinking of it in terms of a movie, in terms we can perhaps more easily understand, also highlights the anticipation that the credits would soon role, the lights would rise and we could walk out and move on with our normal lives. It has been nearly five years and normalcy has prevailed for the most part. Still, walking out of UNITED 93, I left behind more than just the rolling credits and the rising lights; I left behind some leftover heaviness in my heart I didn’t know I was still carrying.