Is it too soon?”
That’s the question my friends and colleagues posed—sometimes with a shudder—when I told them I was off to see United 93, the story of the one hijacked flight on September 11 that did not hit its intended target, in the U.S. capital, but crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard. The trailer was pulled from several New York theaters after complaints from moviegoers.
Leaving aside that the trailer was doing what all trailers do—trying to sell the movie—there is the larger matter of whether Hollywood can be trusted to treat this issue responsibly, to take dramatic liberties with real people, many of whose names are read every year at 9/11 memorial services.
My response to my friends and colleagues was firm: It is never too soon for an artist to grapple with a national trauma and its repercussions in the collective psyche. Nearly five years have passed since 9/11, and the events of that day have permeated popular culture at all levels, from the inchoate yearnings of an English physician in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, to the burgeoning rage of young terrorists in Syriana and Munich, to the torture-first-fill-out-paperwork-later ethos of the hero in TV’s 24. Yes, depictions of 9/11 still dredge up emotions that are difficult to bear. But the process of framing and reframing the tragedy is vital to our healing. We will relive 9/11 anyway, in our nightmares. The best defense is to face it head-on. As Nietzsche wrote, “Dare to be tragic men, and ye shall be redeemed.”
That, in any case, was what I said before I sat through United 93. Now I’m not so nonchalantly Nietzschean. It’s a terrible ordeal—precisely because, in a sense, it is not framed.
The director, Paul Greengrass, began his career making documentaries and now makes the world’s most documentary-like docudramas. His 2002 film Bloody Sunday traces the course of the Irish civil-rights march in 1972 that ends in massacre, and it’s shot with handheld cameras, like a piece of combat photography. At a time when even hack thriller filmmakers employ vérité techniques to give their material a You Are There charge, Greengrass has the discipline and craft to make the illusion take hold. In United 93, it is the morning of September 11, 2001; the action unfolds in something close to real time; and we are ten steps ahead of a tragedy that we’re unable to change.
The movie is as much journalism as art: It’s about how things work—and, on this day, how things don’t work. After a prologue in which four Muslim men pray fervently as the sky lightens outside their cheap motel, Greengrass launches into a long and torturously mundane section in which crew members and passengers arrive at Newark (where United Airlines Flight 93 would originate), and the day shift begins at the control centers in Boston, New York, and Herndon, Virginia (the operations base of the FAA). Flight attendants prepare United 93’s cabin. The co-pilot does a “walk-around” to inspect the exterior. Onboard, an old woman asks for water, explaining that she needs to take her pills. A guy almost misses the plane, dashing in just before the cabin door closes.
With events as well known as these, Greengrass doesn’t need to sensationalize. The film is more powerful when he un -sensationalizes. When Boston loses contact with American Flight 11, the air-traffic controller calls again and again for a response. He doesn’t yet know what’s happening, but we do—and it’s chilling to stare at that tiny icon on the radar.
Even after it’s established that the plane has been hijacked, almost no one can believe it. That’s a blast from the past. The actor playing Ben Sliney, the FAA’s new operations manager, shakes his head and says, “When you get some information, let me know,” as he strolls into a routine briefing. You wonder if the real Sliney will cringe at this, but it turns out this is the real Ben Sliney—he’s playing himself—and he has nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s an example of the September 10 mind-set: When a controller sees American 11 dropping toward Manhattan, he says, “He may be trying to head for one of the New York airports.”
If you see United 93 in a theater with a decent sound system, you’ll notice in the control-center sequences a continuous hubbub in the side speakers. On at least two occasions I turned in annoyance, tempted to go out to the lobby and hush the inconsiderate crowd. But the ubiquitous racket—the busyness, the swerving camera—is part of Greengrass’s strategy. Everything is moving very, very fast and at the same time, in the slowest slow motion. It’s a frantic paralysis.