No flight of fancy

Posted: May 02, 2006 8:05 PM

The movie "United 93" depicts what David Beamer, father of United Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, calls the first "counterattack" in the war on terror after Sept. 11, 2001. Beamer rejects the notion that the movie is coming out "too soon" after Sept. 11. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that if anything is "too soon," it is "too soon for us to become complacent."

You won't hear family members of the 33 passengers and seven crewmembers complain that writer-director Paul Greengrass exploited their loved ones. The film depicts the victims from a respectful distance, with no designated star passenger.

You see the unnamed passengers from the perspective of a fellow traveler boarding the same plane -- on their cell phones in the waiting room, settling into their seats, reacting to news that the plane would be late. (If the flight had left on time, United 93 might have crashed into the U.S. Capitol.)

You have to know the story well to recognize Mark Bingham -- who arrived just before the gate closed -- or Todd Beamer in his baseball cap, or Tom Burnett, who phoned his wife, Deena, after terrorists hijacked Flight 93, stabbed a passenger and killed three crewmembers. From San Ramon, Calif., Deena Burnett told her husband that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center, but you don't hear what she told her husband, you only see his reaction.

There is no defining, dramatic moment when a passenger says, "Let's roll," and male passengers storm forward to take back the cockpit. Instead, you see passengers and flight attendants fumbling with a harsh reality, debating over what to do and phoning loved ones as the plane jerks and falls and forces all to grab whatever they can as they hold on for dear life.

Meanwhile, at the Federal Aviation Administration, air traffic controllers are grappling with the unknown. Is American Airlines Flight 11 the plane that flew into the World Trade Center? Wait, word just came in that the plane is still airborne. It takes time for personnel to decipher the words, "We have some planes" -- that's planes, not a plane.

What "United 93" does best is to bring you back to the pre-9/11 world. When one air traffic controller announces that he believes American Flight 11 has been hijacked, staffers don't bolt into action. They muse about when the last American hijacking occurred. They do not comprehend the situation -- they haven't seen it on TV yet.

Greengrass persuaded a number of government workers -- including Ben Sliney, head of air traffic control in Herndon, Va. -- to play themselves. Sliney is key because he is the bureaucrat who boldly decided to halt all flights in America because the country was at war, when he didn't know there were four planes involved and couldn't get good answers from the military.

This is a valuable perspective that debunks the belief that warnings of the attacks were loud and clear or that officials should have jumped to action the minute American Flight 11 hit one of the World Trade Center towers. At the time and on the scene, decisionmakers didn't have the information or ability to respond surgically. See the military planes flying over the ocean, where they were least needed.

The attacks were simply too quick. The 9-11 commission report concluded that minutes after the Flight 93 crash, President Bush authorized a shooting down of American planes, if necessary. But the brass didn't pass on the order, lest American pilots shoot down the wrong plane. The movie makes it clear how the wrong response might have followed.

One morning, 33 passengers and seven crewmembers boarded a plane expecting a simple, if tedious, cross-country flight. Instead, they walked into bloody history, and they did the best they could. The Sept. 11 panel found that their "actions saved the lives of countless others." It is not too soon to relive that day.