I just came back from the world premiere of ‘?United 93′ at the Zeigfeld theater here in New York. Needless to say, it was quite an emotional experience. From a purely cinematic standpoint, the film was extremely well crafted, but more importantly, it is an unsanitized portrayal of the barbarism of the terrorists and a fitting memorial to the ordinary people aboard the flight who performed heroically under extraordinary circumstances. To the dozens of victims’ families in the audience, it was especially harrowing, and at the end of the movie, I could hear loud sobbing coming from the section of the theater where they were seated (a few rows in front of me). I have to admit, I was a basket case myself for most of the movie. I experienced a lot of emotions I hadn’t quite felt since 9/11. Some may say, what’s the point? Why go to a movie to reopen wounds? Why should seeing a movie be painful? But by this logic, why do we have any memorials? Why do we have a Holocaust Museum, which, in addition to teaching us, shows gruesome images of medical experiments being conducted on Jews?
Others may argue that it’s too soon for such a film. 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’ and ‘?V For Vendetta,’ and one of America’s top rated television shows,’24.’ And let’s not forget that Michael Moore exploited the tragedy in ‘?Fahrenheit 9/11.’ Why is a shoddy piece of anti-American propaganda okay three years after the attacks while a sympathetic portrayal of the heroes of Flight 93 off-limits almost five years later?
Also, the fact that the film was made within five years of the actual events likely 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. Had the film been delayed by 10 to 20 years (or until critics were to deem it the “?right time”) such opportunities may not have been possible, and the movie would have lost its verisimilitude.
Director Paul Greengrass deserves credit for making a film that’s completely apolitical. The events are dramatized as accurately as possible and he doesn’t attempt to assign blame or add his own editorial comments. The terrorists are not portrayed either sympathetically or as stone-faced warriors, but come across as cowards, and their brutality is revealed as they slash their defenseless victims. There is no Hollywood whitewashing of Islam either. In the opening scene, the hijackers pray in Arabic in their hotel rooms. As they carry out their mission throughout the movie, they repeatedly invoke the name of Allah. It shouldn’t be surprising that in a film that aims for accuracy, the terrorists come off as bad guys.
For a film about 9/11, one of the most harrowing aspects, ironically, was that it brought me back to what the world was like before 9/11. In the post- 9/11 world, we’re always conscious of terrorism, but in the film, as an air traffic contoller begins to suspect a hijacking, people are instinctively dismissive, assuming that it can’t possibly be true because we hadn’t had one for decades. It’s amazing how naive we were about the terrorist threat.
Also, since the film takes place in real time, it really gives us better insight into what was going on at the FAA, air traffic control, and the military on that day, how poor communication was, and how long it took them to figure out what was happening. While it’s obvious to the audience what’s transpiring, to those living through it, it isn’t obvious. They couldn’t conceive that one plane would be hijacked let alone 4. At first they assumed the plane would land attempt to land at some airport to make demands, as prior hijackers had done. They couldn’t imagine that the planes would be flown into buildings.
People will have to consult their own hearts before deciding whether or not to see this film. I know a lot of people who won’t see films like “Schindler’s List,” becuase they feel they don’t need to see it to understand how awful the Holocaust was. But for those who do see it, the film is a fitting tribute to the heroes of Flight 93.
Oh, and before I went to see the film, I reread the sections of the 9/11 Commission Report that dealt with Flight 93, and would recommend others do so as well. I have excerpted the parts pertaining to the flight and have posted them