Monday, June 26, 2006

United 93

I watched United 93 over the weekend. The movie is extraordinary. (For those in the Boston area, it's playing at the Studio Cinema in Belmont.)

The terrible day of September 11, 2001 is well scrutinized. Of the four hijacked planes that day, only three reached their targets. The fourth was United Flight 93, headed from Newark to San Francisco. The Al Qaeda terrorists had successfully hijacked the plane, but they were then attacked by a brave group of passengers. The hijackers crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

Everyone knows the ending, but not everyone can remember the beginning. The opening sequences of the movie reveal a routine Tuesday. Newark Airport fills up with passengers and crew, rushing through security, rushing to make the gate. The offices of the air traffic controllers and military personnel are having a standard weekday morning. The non-chalance of everybody that morning is striking. Things would soon change for the worse.

The unusual flight paths of American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 catch the attention of air traffic controllers. AA 11 rammed into the North Tower first. Then there is a mesmerizing scene of traffic controllers in Newark swiveling their heads, following the too low, too fast flight of 175. One has a phone pressed to his ear. "I'll call you back," he says, as the rest of the team stare grimly at the smoking towers.

All this is in the movie. The pace quickens by cutting back and forth between the military response and the air traffic controller response. Keeping the focus on these two groups better reminds the viewer how little anyone knew what was happening. There was so much confusion that day, and the movie shows good people trying to do the right thing with so little information. When I saw Ben Sliney (the manager of the FAA) make the decision to ground all planes, I let out a big sigh.

When the movie focuses on the United 93, the passengers are introduced simply. Business travelers. Vacationers. Young. Old. The hijackers are drawn simply too. They are nervous, fidgety even. There are no names over their images as these people are seen on the screen. They are strangers to one another, just like on any other airplane ride.

United Flight 93 was delayed by nearly forty-five minutes. This enables the passengers to learn about the terrorist plot during their furtive calls to home during the hijacking. They begin to piece together the totality of that day. They realize that they are about to become victims. They learn that they are going to die. Unless they do something about it.

From the moment the hijackers take over the cockpit, to the courageous attempt by the passengers to overwhelm the hijackers and take control of the plane, I kept thinking: what would I have done? What could I have done? The depictions of the various passengers reaching their loved ones back home was heartbreaking. The actions taken by the passengers to try to take back the plane was rousing. The movie kept you gripped entirely in its present moment, and I kept thinking "this can't be happening."

The ending of the movie was quick, and startling. I was still gripping the arms rests when the end titles began to appear. I was still waiting in vain for the nose of the plane to lift up as I settled into the credits.

The bar for movies about the events of 9/11 has been set very high by United 93's director, Paul Greengrass. This is a movie that you shouldn't miss.