United 93: Gut Feelings

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Apr 21, 2006 2:27 PM

I saw United 93 yesterday.

I'm not sure if I can use this word as an adjective, but it keeps coming to mind, so here goes. It was shaking. I was shaken. I was shaky. However you want to say it, that's what it did.

It was also, at turns, moving, eerie, creepy, heavy, stark, gritty, exhilarating. I'm not gonna lie. It wasn't easy to watch. But I'm glad I watched it.

Five years after 9/11, I find myself still looking back on it as if it were a bad disaster movie. The images are so fiery and hear-wrenching, they're surreal. I know, intellectually, that it all happened. I know where I was when I found out; I remember calling all my friends in D.C. and New York; I remember looking warily at the clear blue sky every time I stepped outside.

But remembering it doesn't always make the whole surreal thing much less surreal, and I imagine many folks who weren't in NYC or D.C. that day feel the same way. Something that bizarre and weighty and horrible really requires that I just sit down and take it all in sometimes, concentrate on it, to remember that it all actually happened, that there really are more than 3,000 people in the ground because of that day.

Emotionally, that's what this movie does. It brings back that morning in a very real way. All the disbelief, the confusion, the incredulity, the fear, the panic, the sadness, the stunned silence.

Stunned silence. The theater was perfectly quiet when the movie ended. The walk out of the theater was perfectly quiet.

On top of that, you've got the incredible weight of about 14 tons of dramatic irony as you watch air traffic controllers in four locations try to piece together radio transmissions and green blips, and flight plans.

Controller 1: "I lost American 11. It just disappeared! It just fell right off my screen."

Controller 2: "Where did you lose it?"

Controller 1: "Somewhere over Manhattan."

Try and watch that without a gut check.

Much of the movie takes place in air traffic control centers and towers across the country. You watch as one hijacking becomes four, as the hijackings go from curiosities ("A hijacking? We haven't had a hijacking in 20 years.) to all-out war ("This is a commercial plane. We are requesting rules of engagement. Can we shoot it down? Does the President make that decision? Can the Vice-President?").

The first third of the movie is very heavy on the air-traffic control scenes--it almost drags a bit-- with just a few scenes of the boarding and pre-flight rituals for Flight 93. There's very little humanization of the story until the point at which the story moves off the radar screens and into real life, the point at which the air traffic controllers realize where all those lost blips are heading.

In one control center, the controllers put CNN on one of their big screens just in time to see the flight they just lost hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. In a control tower near NY, controllers get word that a flight is lost somewhere near them and descending fast. They lose it on the radar screen, but watch it come across the sky in front of their window and explode.

Watching those folks collect themselves and get back to work after witnessing that gave me a new respect for them.

After that, the movie becomes much more heavily focused on Flight 93. It doesn't give you a lot of background on the passengers, which is good, because the background you do get comes in dialogue that's just a little clumsy. But if you've seen the TV documentary, you can fill in the blanks, and of course, you see each passenger making phone calls to loved ones, so that helps.

The recreation of the events is a bit different than the TV documentary, but I didn't think it was overly sensational or out of the question. The big guys gather together and collect knives, forks, fire extinguishers before mounting an attack on the two hijackers outside the cockpit.

I won't tell all the action, but I will say that when they beat down that first terrorist, it was quite possibly the most satisfying, cinematic moment I've ever experienced. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it felt good.

Watching the terrorists' faces drop as they realize they won't be able to complete their mission for god-- priceless. The terrorists are portrayed mercilessly. They celebrate as the news of the World Trade Center attacks comes over the cockpit radio. They stab passengers, slit the throat of a stewardess saying, "let's go ahead and kill her. We don't need her," and strike an EMT for trying to attend to bleeding passengers.

I know the movie has a lot of people talking about whether it's appropriate to make money off the story of 9/11, if we're being exploited emotionally, if we're ready for a movie like this.

I didn't feel like the movie was exploitative. There are no big stars saving the day single-handedly. There are many flawed, scared men and women who manage to do something very, very brave, but there also is not a lot of sentimentality.

The movie is stark, unadorned. The story speaks for itself. And, the people of Flight 93 and the rest of the victims of 9/11 deserve to have it told.

For all those reasons, it is hard to watch, but you should watch it.