On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I, like everyone else in this nation, stood horrified, watching the Twin Towers smolder on the television before me. A TV had been dragged to the main lobby of the building where I was on duty at Bolling Air Force Base base, and dozens of us were crowded around it. I was at Bolling because I was out-processing from the Navy—just a few more days of paperwork and I was officially a civilian again. Watching the carnage unfolding in New York, I began to wonder if they were going to let me go anywhere.
A loud crash made us jump and drew all our eyes to the ceiling. “Jeez,” I thought, “did someone on the next floor just knock over one of those heavy-duty filing cabinets?” And then I went back to watching the TV.
A moment later a sailor burst through the front doors, out of breath, his arms gesticulating wildly behind him.
“It’s been hit…the Pentagon…it’s on fire…it’s on fire!”
We all piled out the front doors and there before us was the massive Pentagon structure, a mere stone’s throw from our building. A large quadrant of it was wreathed in flame. Acrid black smoke belched into the sky.
The base was immediately locked down. Those of us living off base were not allowed to leave. For several days, we slept on floors, in hallways, anywhere they could put us. That night I sat alone at a table in the cafeteria, absentmindedly picking at my dinner. On one of the mounted television screens, CNN showed the Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol, and in a rare moment of solidarity, singing “God Bless America” in one voice. While they sang, I took my eyes off the TV to the large bay windows just below it. The windows afforded me an unobstructed view of the Pentagon, it’s hemorrhaging flames illuminating the night sky.
* * *
Ever since it was revealed that Hollywood was producing films based on the events of 9/11 (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center comes out later this year) I’ve heard two predominant reactions: “God, do you think we’re ready” and “Hollywood has a lot of nerve exploiting 9/11 just so that they can make a buck.”
The latter concern first…
If I didn’t understand film’s titanic power over our lives and its enormous ability to move us like no other medium, I’d find the exploitative remarks odd. No one complains about books—even fictional books—written about 9/11. Or songs. Or paintings. Or photographs. Or any other artistic medium. That’s because, as powerful as these tools may be, their spheres of influence pale in comparison to the reach, appeal and incisiveness of movies. Film alone has the power to cut straight through our skin and peel back the layers of our hearts. And it can do so faster than we can ever see it coming.
Which leads me to the former concern…
We’re ready. It is not too soon for United 93 because United 93 does not play like a film that is aware of the five plus years of history trailing behind those tragic events. This is a film told entirely in the present tense. Like an episode of TV’s 24, events unfold in nearly real time, rapid yet realistic.
This is a film that borrows more from the world of documentaries than from feature blockbusters. The camera work is uneven and sporadic, even disconcerting at times as if it too is trying its hardest to keep up with the action but is always just one step behind. Once United flight 93 gets airborne, there are no more establishing shots, no computer-generated planes spinning out of control. We are allowed to see only what the characters see—through windows, computer monitors and TV screens.
You probably won’t recognize a single actor in United 93. Director Paul Greengrass has deliberately chosen faces that you cannot identify. Dozens of the flight controllers and military personnel play themselves. There is no effort to tell the human-interest or back-stories of either the passengers or the terrorists. We don’t see them sharing breakfast with their kids or kissing their spouses before they leave for the airport. We learn very few of their names. All we know about the passengers, crew and terrorists is what we’d know had we been sitting in the terminal with them waiting to board or beside them in the plane. Which is to say, we know their faces. The film alternates between the cabin of 93 and the handful of command posts struggling to decipher what is going on. First one plane is hijacked, then another, then another, then another. Soon these planes begin smashing into buildings, one after another, after another, after another. No one knows what is going on. Pandemonium engulfs everyone.
In the film’s final act, the flight controllers disappear, replaced entirely now with the goings on inside the aircraft. The hijackers have seized the plane, killed several people, appear to have a bomb, and are headed for a collision course with the U.S. Capitol. We know what’s going on and what the passengers will do next because of the cockpit voice recorder and the many telephone calls they made before the rushed their attackers, stormed the cockpit and sacrificed their own lives for those of hundreds of others. There are no mustache-twirling villains here, no standout heroes. Just a planeload of terrified passengers who make the bravest and most sacrificial decision of their lives.
We know what’s coming. It’s our history. And still our stomachs are in knots.
United 93 is a film of extraordinary accuracy. There are no true moments of poetic license. While much of the action inside the aircraft has to be imagined and extrapolated through the scant details that survived, everything, down to the exact lines are recreated with pinpoint realism. (One exception is a shockingly beautiful imagined scene when the hijackers realize they are about to lose control of the plane and the passengers are preparing themselves for the inevitable. Both sides find themselves in prayer. The hijackers chant passages from the Koran juxtaposed with the passenger’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.)
The film contains no politics. No patriotic speeches. No finger pointing. No conspiracy theories. No Iraq. No bigger historical picture. There are no mentions of the “War on Terror” or Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. This is a time before anyone found those names on the tips of their tongues. United 93 is a film devoid of any sort of commentary or conclusions because it does not allow itself to have the benefit of hindsight. Anything brought to this film will be the inevitable result of the viewer superimposing his or her own beliefs atop it.
This is one of those rare films where, when the credits begin the roll and the house lights go up, many people find they cannot move. The theater is uncomfortably silent. The sound of crying is the only thing heard.
I’ve seen it twice today already and I cannot assure you enough that this is a masterful and heartbreaking film. It in no way exploits the events of 9/11 or the people involved in them. In fact, many family members of those killed aboard flight 93 were deeply involved in its production. They have publicly stated, and I agree with them, that this film honors the memories of the fallen.
The film has garnered nearly immaculate reviews. Those who are less then enthusiastic admit to its first-rate production values and even its honorable intentions, but are at a place where they are not yet ready to deal with its subject matter. Such may be some of you. But if you think you are ready to wrestle with these demons, again, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The theaters I attended were packed—people are seeing this film. And they are applauding when it is over. Like other painful and deeply disturbing films such as Shindler’s List, this is not a film you go to for enjoyment, but because you feel you have a duty to endure it.
Before "United 93" begins, the trailer for All the King's Men will be shown. Sean Penn is going to win an Oscar next year. Mark my words. You’ll see what I mean.