By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer yelled “Let’s roll” on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his fellow passengers stormed the cockpit of the hijacked plane, which crashed in a remote Pennsylvania field.
Actually, he yelled, “Let’s roll it,” as in “let’s roll the drink cart toward the cockpit door and use it as a ramrod,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report, but it doesn’t matter. The phrase caught on and signifies the courageous, innocent civilians aboard United 93 and their struggle to survive the terrifying situation.
The line is downplayed in Paul Greengrass’s film “United 93,” a harrowing, real-time documentation of the hijacking. In fact, none of the characters are identified by name, but a family member or friend could recognize their characterization. Greengrass wanted it this way: a straightforward, unflinching look at the lives of the passengers in the context of the hijacking.
“United 93” is more of an experience than a movie. Going into it, we know the outcome; watching the pilots, flight attendants and passengers board the plane and go about their day, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of loss at knowing these are their final minutes. Still, it was important for me to watch, just as it is important that the film was made.
Some have said it is too soon to recreate the terror of the tragic event, but Greengrass’s assertion is that it’s never too soon to remember the events that changed our nation and the way we talk about terrorism, foreign policy and faith.
The film begins with a look at the four terrorists in their hotel rooms as they prepare for the day’s events, and follows them as they make their way to the airport, through various checkpoints and on to the plane. Once everyone boards the plane, the film runs in real-time, following the hijacking minute-by-minute, cutting between scenes on the plane and scenes in various air traffic control rooms.
Greengrass made sure “United 93” is more than just a recount of what happened on the airplane, but also what happened on Sept. 11 from the viewpoints of the national and military air traffic controllers who were running on little information about what was happening, having no preparation for a hijacking.
When they first hear about a possible hijacking, they laugh it off, thinking the situation impossible. This hits to the heart of the film: no one thought that Sept. 11 was possible. Well, many in the government did, but most American citizens hadn’t given the idea much thought. The film follows those who were suddenly thrown into a seemingly impossible situation, and Greengrass uses many real flight attendants, air traffic controllers, military personnel and pilots to recreate the events, which adds a disturbing level of realism to the project.
No-name and local New York City actors met with the families of United 93 victims, learning what their characters were like, down to what they were wearing the day of the attack, what luggage was used, and whether they would have ordered coffee or juice on the plane. The flight manifest, the 9/11 Commission report, the cockpit voice recording and phone calls passengers made to their families and left on answering machines serve as the backbone of the script, and most of the actors and non-actors improvise their lines.
Ben Sliney, FAA National Operations Manager, plays himself in the film, and while you can definitely tell he’s not an actor, he and other non-actors add a level of sincerity and believability to the piece.
Greengrass’s experience with suspenseful films, “Bloody Sunday” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” puts “United 93’s” quality on a higher level than say a recreation segment on The History Channel. The fast-paced editing heightens the confusion of the first two hours of the attack, and the combination of air traffic controllers on the ground and the passengers in the air fighting for their lives and the lives of others is overwhelming.
“United 93” really can’t be placed in a category with other more scripted films. It’s not fun, it’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not a pick-me-up kind of film. Yet, “United 93” is on the level of other socially conscious films that demand attention and force audiences to consider the issues it examines. “United 93” is an honest look at a horrible day in history, one that should never be forgotten.