Director Paul Greengrass’ (The Bourne Supremacy) new film, United 93, could be the first effective cultural attempt to pull that rug away.
Though it is about as unsentimentalized a portrayal as one could imagine, in its starkness and its attention to detail, United 93 takes us into the heart of the confusion and fear, as well as the courage and competency provoked by the events of September 11, 2001. So committed was Greengrass to the facts of the day, numerous people, including Federal Aviation Administration's Operations Manager Ben Sliney, play themselves in the film (I won’t venture to guess what it says about star salaries that most of them do so more convincingly than any A-lister could hope to).
While the movie centers on the heroic passengers of Flight 93, it doesn’t make headliners of any of them. No one person takes center stage. From a purely technical point of view, his decision to approach the project this way makes Greengrass’ job doubly hard. Normally, background story and intimate knowledge helps us identify with the primary characters. Here we connect with them through the business of their ordinary interaction. Some are healthy and reject the airline breakfast in favor of a stowed apple; some aren’t so healthy and joke with the stewardesses about whether they should have a shot of rye along with their morning coffee. In their careless conversation, their talk of babies at home and plans after landing, we recognize those who died on 9/11 as our neighbors, our family, our friends…as all of us.
Of those things that can’t be known, what was said and what happened inside the cabin before the plane crashed, Greengrass spares no sacred entertainment cows. The religious affiliation of the terrorists is clear, as is their depravity. At the same time, he doesn’t make caricatures of their evil nor of the passengers’ heroics. Those on board Flight 93 formulate and execute their plan quickly, sometimes sloppily, but, in true American spirit, always decisively. Once they fully understand their circumstances, they refuse to give in to terror.
No one could claim that the experience of watching United 93 is completely pleasurable, but there is a payoff to stress, tension, and sorrow of reliving that day beyond simply learning more about the activities of the military and FAA. We also learn something about ourselves, and it is this: For every one talking head on television that preaches concession, there are a thousand that refuse to go quietly into the night.
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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