“United 93” is a 2006 film portraying what happened on the fourth airplane hijacked on September 11, 2001, in which the passengers fought the hijackers after finding out that other hijacked planes had hit the World Trade Center. The film is done in a cinema-verite you-are-there documentary style, and thankfully there are no Hollywood archetypes – just ordinary people put in an extraordinary situation. Even the hijackers are portrayed as real people. Director Paul Greengrass did extensive research, including studying the government reports and conducting dozens of interviews with family members to get personal details right, and even real pilots and flight attendants are used to portray their roles in the film. Several families of the passengers of Flight 93 attended the world premiere of the film to show their support.
Greengrass does a masterful job making viewers feel like they are there. It is more than just the shaky cameras which many newspaper reviewers referred to – it is his sensitivity and portrayal of human emotions, and the choices he makes in what to show on the screen.
It is jarring at first to see that the beginning of the movie is from the standpoint of the hijackers, but this seems to be the only logical choice. After all, we, as viewers watching this after the events portrayed in the film, know what is coming, and it is only the hijackers who know what’s going to happen. One of the hijackers is sitting at a chair waiting at the gate waiting for the boarding call, and looks nervously to the man sitting next to him casually conducting everyday business affairs on his cellphone. A flight attendant asks one of the hijackers what he would like for breakfast… Seeing these men and women on the plane, including even the hijackers, portrayed as real people who we can somehow see ourselves being, makes the entire film almost unbearable and impossible to watch.
The scenes from the flight control centers are necessary to bring us back to that day, because most of us were as these people were – horrified observers. The film cuts back and forth between Flight 93 and the flight control centers, until the final part of the movie when we are on Flight 93 entirely.
What is gripping about this film is that it puts us in the minds of the people who died that day. Greengrass paid much attention to details, such as early on in the movie when a passenger looks behind her as she adjusts her seat backward to get more comfortable. The flight attendants put on their heels after having sat during the takeoff, to take food orders from the passengers. These mundanities of everyday travelling life set the psychological stage for the events to come.
In conventional Hollywood terms, the first half of the movie is “not very exciting,” and there is in reality a scant amount of violence when compared to commercial action films. But the film places you so completely and psychologically on the plane that day, that when the first horrors are committed — in the same real, gritty documentary style the rest of the film is made in — the violence is stomach-churning and horrifying.
The triumph of the movie is that, as we approach the final minutes and the passengers are aware this a suicide mission, we are still right there with them. One of the hijackers might trigger a bomb strapped to his waist at any second, and no one knows if they’ll live to see the next moment. We feel their terror and their struggle to build up their courage. The calls to loved ones – everyone with the same final words to say – are heartbreaking. In these final minutes, as the passengers face fate, the film becomes a universal experience.
The passengers’ terror, determination, and courage are now recreated through film, in possibly the best way it could have been done. Though the heroes on the plane are no longer with us, they live through us as the people we are: terrified, courageous human beings in our own right, who feel for them, admire them, and wish we can find the courage that they did someday. A respectful and heartfelt dedication to the passengers of Flight 93.