The terrifying footage of people jumping from the top floors of the Twin Towers has given Americans a sense of what people were going through inside the buildings on September 11, and the images of ash-covered fire fighters and police officers have captured the heroism of rescue workers at the World Trade Center on that day. But the horrors aboard the hijacked airplanes, and the heroism exhibited by the passengers of United Flight 93, were left to the minds eye. That will all change with the release of the movie United 93 on Friday.
Having attended Tuesday’s world premiere of the film in New York, which was also attended by about 90 relatives of the victims, I can attest to the fact that the movie is an emotionally draining one. Watching the day’s events unfold all over again, almost in real time, resurrected many feelings I had not felt since September 11. And director Paul Greengrass didn’t hold back in depicting the grisly way in which the hijackers stabbed and slashed defenseless victims and stormed their way into the cockpit.
Some would argue that this is a bad thing. Why go to the movies to relive one of the most horrific days of our lives? Why do we need to re-create one of the few events from that day which escaped the lens of the mass media? It’s obvious that what went on inside the airplanes was awful, why do we need to see it?
But oftentimes memorializing tragic events requires depicting them in all of their gory details. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows photos of Jews who underwent medical experiments and Schindler’s List graphically portrayed the brutality of Nazism. Is this exploitative and unnecessary?
Others may argue that Schindler’s List was made about 50 years after the Holocaust, while it has been less than five years since September 11, which is too soon. But many war films were released while World War II was still being fought. And though this is the first feature length dramatic film directly dealing with 9/11, Americans have already been inundated with entertainment that implicitly addresses the subject, such as Munich, V for Vendetta, and one of America’s top rated television shows, 24. Michael Moore exploited the tragedy in Fahrenheit 9/11. If a shoddy piece of anti-American propaganda can be released three years after the attacks, why should a sympathetic portrayal of the heroes of Flight 93 remain off-limits almost five years later?
Making United 93 relatively soon after the event contributed to its haunting realism. Many of the air traffic controllers who were on duty on 9/11 play themselves, as does FAA national operations manager Ben Sliney. The actors who portrayed the passengers were able to meet with the families of the actual passengers to get a better sense of what their loved ones were like. Had the film been put off by 10 to 20 years (or until critics deemed it the “appropriate” time) such opportunities would not have been possible, and the movie would have lost its verisimilitude.
There are other reasons why releasing the film now could be beneficial. There is a danger that the further removed Americans are from September 11, the more complacent the nation will become about the threat of terrorism. In an April Gallup Poll, only 6 percent of Americans named terrorism as the most important problem facing the country. United 93 offers a stark reminder of what we are up against.
One of the most unexpected aspects of the film is that it also shows the audience how naive and innocent America was before 9/11. As an air traffic contoller begins to suspect a hijacking, people are instinctively dismissive, assuming that it can’t possibly be true because there hadn’t been one for decades.
The violent reaction of some Muslims to the publication of the Mohamed cartoons has effectively silenced criticism of Islam in the Western media, but United 93 doesn’t whitewash the role of Islam in terrorism. In the opening scene, the hijackers pray in Arabic in their hotel rooms. As they carry out their mission, they repeatedly invoke the name of Allah.
The film also depicts a time when Americans were united, and ready to face a common enemy. With the nation now divided between those who are pro-Iraq War and anti-Iraq War, those who support Bush and those who hate him, the film helps us remember that we’re all in this together. The story of these ordinary people performing heroically in such horrifying conditions should serve as an inspiration to the civilized world as it confronts the monstrous evil of terrorism.
The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that it was unlikely that the military would have been able to stop United Flight 93 from reaching Washington, D.C. if its passengers hadn’t caused the plane to crash. Thus, the quick and courageous actions of these unarmed civilians likely saved either the Capitol or the White House. United 93 is a fitting tribute to them, and America is ready to watch their story.
Philip Klein writes from New York. He can be contacted through his website www.philipklein.com.