The flight that changed the world -- and the movie about it

Posted: May 07, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- In most movies made to convey dread, the tension flows from uncertainty about what will happen. In ``United 93,'' terror comes from knowing exactly what will happen. People who associate cinematic menace with maniacs wielding chain saws will find that there can be an almost unbearable menace in the quotidian -- in the small talk of passengers waiting in the boarding area with those who will murder them, in the routine shutting of the plane's door prior to push-back from the gate at Newark Airport on Sept. 11.

But two uncertainties surrounded ``United 93'': Would it find an audience? Should it?

It has found one, which is remarkable, given that in 2005 most moviegoers -- 57 percent -- were persons 12 to 29 years old. Twenty-nine percent were persons 12 to 24. These age cohorts do not seek shattering, saddening experiences to go with their popcorn. In its first weekend, ``United 93'' was the second most watched movie, with the top average gross per theater among major releases. It was on 1,795 screens, and 71 percent of viewers were 30 or older.

To the long list of Britain's contributions to American cinema -- Charles Chaplin, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Stan Laurel, Deborah Kerr, Vivien Leigh, Maureen O'Hara, Ronald Colman, David Niven, Boris Karloff, Alfred Hitchcock and others -- add Paul Greengrass, writer and director of ``United 93.'' He imported into Hollywood the commodity most foreign to it: good taste. This is especially shown in the ensemble of unknown character actors, and non-actors who play roles they know -- a real pilot plays the pilot, a former flight attendant plays the head flight attendant -- and several persons who play on screen the roles they played on 9/11.

Greengrass' scrupulosity is evident in the movie's conscientious, minimal and minimally speculative departures from the facts about the flight that were painstakingly assembled for the ``The 9/11 Commission Report.'' This is emphatically not a ``docu-drama'' such as Oliver Stone's execrable ``JFK,'' which was ``history'' as a form of literary looting in which the filmmaker used just enough facts to lend a patina of specious authenticity to tendentious political ax-grinding.

A New York Times Story on the ``politics of heroism" deals with the question of whether the movie is ``inclusive." Well, perhaps ``United 93" did violate some egalitarian nicety by suggesting that probably not all the passengers were equally heroic. Amazingly, no one has faulted the movie for ethnic profiling: All the hijackers are portrayed as young, fervently devout Islamic males. Report Greengrass to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

In a movie as spare and restrained as its title, the only excess is the suggestion, itself oblique, that the government responded even more confusedly that morning than was to be expected. Most government people, like the rest of us, were in the process of having their sense of the possible abruptly and radically enlarged.

Going to see ``United 93'' is a civic duty because Samuel Johnson was right: People more often need to be reminded than informed. After an astonishing 56 months without a second terrorist attack, this nation perhaps has become dangerously immune to astonishment. The movie may quicken our appreciation of the measures and successes -- many of which must remain secret -- that have kept would-be killers at bay.

The editors of National Review were wise to view ``United 93'' in the dazzling light still cast by a Memorial Day address, ``The Soldier's Faith,'' delivered in 1895 by a veteran of Ball's Bluff, Antietam and other Civil War battles. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said why understanding that faith is important:

``In this snug, over-safe corner of the world ... we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger. ... Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism.''

The message of the movie is: We are all potential soldiers. And we all may be, at any moment, at the war's front, because in this war the front can be anywhere.

The hinge on which the movie turns are 13 words that a passenger speaks, without histrionics, as he and others prepare to rush the cockpit, shortly before the plane plunges into a Pennsylvania field. The words are: ``No one is going to help us. We've got to do it ourselves.'' Those words not only summarize this nation's situation in today's war, but also express a citizen's general responsibilities in a free society.