United 93: On a Penknife’s Edge


On the same day that I first saw this movie, it was reported that British police had exposed a major plot to blow up several commercial airliners over American cities. I guess the war that began on September 11th, 2001 will go on for quite some time. There is a lot to be said about President Bush’s conduct of that war, but this is neither the time nor the movie to debate politics. United 93 avoids all that and simply shows us what happened to one of the four planes that were hijacked that day. The experience is stunning.

It’s morning on that fateful day five years ago. As the passengers and crew board flight United 93 bound for San Francisco, it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful autumn day across the country. The first sign of something going wrong is when an air traffic controller realizes that flight American 11 might be hijacked, and alerts his superiors. Soon, the plane disappears from the radar but appears in New York City where it crashes into the World Trade Center’s northern tower. Then flight United 175 vanishes from the screens and everybody understands that it also has been hijacked. It crashes into the southern tower of the World Trade Center. Then flight American 77 hits the Pentagon.

Finally, four men on flight 93 make their move. Armed with penknives, they stab one of the passengers, force themselves into the cockpit, and kill the pilots and one of the flight attendants. They show something that looks like a bomb to the passengers and tell them that the plane will go back to the airport. One of the hijackers takes the controls. The passengers manage to contact their families who tell them what is going on in New York and Washington, leading them to realize that the plane will not go to an airport and that they are going to have to fight for survival.

Raw, claustrophobic feel to it
It’s a perfect story about heroism. No one survived the crash of flight 93, but the bravery of the passengers caused the airliner to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania instead of Washington. It’s a sensitive subject, but director Paul Greengrass knows how to tell the story, namely as straightforward as possible, relying on good actors and his own judgment. There’s no need to introduce fancy CGI effects (we never see the plane crash and the footage of the other disasters is borrowed from the news) or write sentimental stories about the passengers. The real world is good enough.

Greengrass also avoided casting big names; I recognize a face here and there, but these actors are fairly unknown, occasionally seen on stage or in minor parts on various TV shows. They are nevertheless professionals and their performances move me to tears; they deserve an ensemble Oscar, including those who portray the nervous but determined hijackers. The film has a raw, claustrophobic feel to it (it was shot inside a real Boeing jet) and the scenes on the ground were populated by several people who actually play themselves. It’s a credit to the director that it works beautifully; the presence of these people, FAA manager Ben Sliney in particular, lends authenticity to the scenes in the air traffic towers.

The tension mounts, to say the least. By the time the passengers start attacking the hijackers, my stomach is in knots. This is such an uncomfortable, harrowing experience. We virtually feel like we’re on that plane, headed for disaster but desperately fighting to save ourselves, using little but our own hands, clawing, pulling, hitting, doing everything it takes to subdue the people who are trying to kill us.

Watching this film makes you feel like you’re dying, but you end up a richer person.

United 93 2006-U.S.-France-Britain. 111 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Editing: Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, Christopher Rouse. Cast: David Alan Basche (Todd Beamer), Richard Bekins (William Cashman), Susan Blommaert (Jane Folger), Ray Charleson, Christian Clemenson, Khalid Abdalla.

Trivia: The same story was also told in the TV movie Flight 93 (2006).

BAFTA: Best Director, Editing.

Last word: “That always interested me because it was the last plane that took off – it took off late by chance because of the air traffic control delays. It always seemed to me that those 40 passengers were the first people to inhabit our world – the world of: ‘What are we going to do? What can we do and what will be the consequences of what we do?’ By the time that hijack happened at half-past nine, 9/11 was basically all over. The Twin Towers had been hit half an hour before, the Pentagon was being hit as they were being hijacked – it was all over. That always seemed to be the drama of the thing, the thing that would speak to us.” (Greengrass, IndieLondon)


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