Part of that realism, and the most brilliantly executed scene in the film, is the depiction of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center. This image is so much a part of our national psyche now that one might think a cinematic portrayal would seem somehow cliched. But to the contrary, Paul Greengrass has managed to convey the shock and horror of that moment and remind us again of what a savage enormity was committed against us that day.
The film also captures the confusion and chaos that gripped air traffic controllers, the military and other officials forced to respond to an unprecedented emergency. We are reminded of the rumors that flew, of the inevitable misinformation and of the difficulty in establishing lines of communication. Above all, like a basso continuo beneath the action on screen, is the pulsing reality of fear.
What, then, are the critics talking about when they describe this film as "controversial"? The Washington Post ran a front-page story called "When Hollywood Makes History: Invented Details in 'United 93' Raise Real Questions." What were these "invented details"? In the film, the terrorist piloting United 93 places a photo of the Capitol on the plane's console. This is incorrect, the Post intones, since the 9/11 Commission said investigators could not determine whether the White House or the Capitol was the actual target. Is that it? No, the film also shows the terrorists killing the pilot and co-pilot, whereas we don't know if they really did that. Finally, the passengers are depicted as breaching the cockpit, whereas the tapes leave that issue unresolved.