A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)
This docudrama tells the story of the passengers and crew of United
Airlines Flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
Told in real time, the film re-creates the doomed trip, from takeoff
to the hijacking to the realization by those on-board that their
plane was part of a coordinated attack against the United States.
I was with a group of friars and asked anyone if he wanted to
see this critically acclaimed film about the tragic flight which
crashed in rural Pennsylvania on 9/11. No one wanted to go. One
friar shook his head and said, “It’s still too soon.”
Many others around the country have wondered the same thing, approaching
five years after this terrible day. Was it still too soon? Even
though I was hesitant, I needed to see for myself.
I’m very glad I saw United 93. British filmmaker Paul Greengrass
has done an admirable job bringing this sensitive story to the
screen. Greengrass neither sensationalizes nor trivializes the
story. It is a fitting tribute to ordinary people caught up in
a tragedy they could never have predicted.
The film begins on what seems a very ordinary Tuesday morning.
Ordinary men and women are coming to work as flight controllers,
flight attendants, pilots, business travelers. They talk about
their jobs, their families, the weather, airport traffic. An airport
waiting lounge is full of people reading newspapers and talking
on cell phones, like it was just another day.
In the midst of the banal of the ordinary, a group of terrorists
gathers in a motel room. They begin their day with prayer. They
too talk about their families, and make their way through the
morning rush hour to the Newark airport. In many ways, they seem
like ordinary travelers on the flight headed for San Francisco.
Much of the success of the film is in the attention to the ordinary
details of a day which would turn out to be anything but ordinary.
To his credit, Greengrass uses unknown actors, even some non-professional
actors (e.g. a flight controller plays a flight controller.) This
adds to the realistic tone of the film and keeps the audience
focused on the story, not the celebrities. Imagine how awful it
would be to have had Tom Cruise as Todd Beamer and Julia Roberts
as a flight attendant! Greengrass does not distract from the unfolding
drama in the air and on the ground.
There was a tightening in the pit of my stomach as the events
of the day unfold. The suspense builds to the moment in which
the highjackers spring into action. Once they take over the airplane,
killing a flight attendant, the pilots, and wounding a passenger,
the remaining flight attendants and passengers are all moved to
the back of the plane. Using airphones and cell phones, they learn
of the attacks on the twin towers, and realize that they must
act, not only for themselves, but for the sake of innocent people
on the ground. The film becomes more and more emotional as the
passengers and flight attendants call their loved ones, knowing
they may well never see them again. Todd Beamer’s famous
cry, “let’s roll” is spoken, not as a battle
cry, but as a resolute statement, when there is no choice but
to act. The final moments, when the passengers attack the terrorists
and storm the cockpit, are very difficult to watch.
I was struck by the attention to prayer in the film. As I mentioned,
the opening scene shows the terrorists praying for courage and
strength. Much later in the film, the passengers pray in the face
of danger. In an ironic way, terrorists and passengers are united
in prayer. One scene cuts between passengers praying the Lord’s
prayer and one of the highjackers mouthing a silent prayer. Days
after seeing the movie, I am haunted by the scenes of prayer.
How do I understand this? My first reaction is the natural desire
for God when we are in the shadow of death. Regardless of our
faith tradition, we turn to prayer.
Is it to soon for United 93? Not at all. The film is both reflective
and respectful. There are no speeches about freedom, no flag waving,
no demonizing. What we have is so much more effective. Greengrass
focus on our common humanity, and the heroic courage of ordinary
people in extraordinary circumstances.
I understand that other films dealing with 9/11 will be released
in the next few months, probably with bigger stars and budgets.
Not having seen any of them, I will venture a guess is that United
93 is the one that will be most remembered, and will contribute
the most toward healing the wounds of that awful day.
Tom Condon, OP