A hotel room in the early hours of September 11, 2001. Four young men wash, groom, and say their final prayers as they set out towards Newark airport. Here, flight crew and ground staff go about their routine operations, planning their days off and idly gossiping. The four men, now separated, make their way through security and board a domestic flight with the rest of the nonchalant passengers. Due to congestion, take-off is delayed by half an hour, but finally the all clear is given and Flight 93 heads off towards its San Francisco destination. At the National Air Traffic Control Centre in Herndon Virginia, Ben Sliney, the freshly-appointed National Operations Manager, arrives on the first day of his new job to a smattering of applause. Once two planes have hit the World Trade Centre buildings, and another the Pentagon, Sliney decides to ground all flights in the US. On board Flight 93, the four men realize their plot to hijack the plane by killing the two pilots and threatening passengers with an imitation bomb. Among the passengers word spreads of the terrorists’ murderously-suicidal intentions and, together with members of the crew, they decide to take action.
In the strange days immediately following 9/11, a fair proportion of editorial space was given over to ruminating on how Hollywood would eventually deal with a tragedy that had itself unfolded in a highly-cinematic fashion – like a disaster actuality lived through in real time. There was talk of studios hurriedly scrapping terror-themed projects, of Schwarzenegger action movies pushed back on the release slate, and hard-pressed airbrushers hurriedly eliminating offending images of the now-vanished towers, suddenly historicizing upcoming releases.
Perhaps there was some unspoken sense of mea culpa. After all, Hollywood had been through it all before; the mid-air hijack being a standard plot-hook since Airport (1970) and its many sequels, spoofs and imitations up to Passenger 57 (1992) and Executive Decision (1996). Released less than five years after the attacks, Paul Greengrass’ as-close-as-we’ll-get dramatic recreation of that day focuses on the ‘other plane’, United Airlines Flight 93, which crash landed in Pennsylvania after an apparent onboard uprising. That the film has all the staples of an old-school disaster classic makes the action all the more uncanny, and one wonders if the passengers themselves had time to reflect on this odd déjà vu. Not that writer/director Greengrass is one to up the bombast, with even the totemic one-liner ‘let’s roll’ mumbled out as a practical directive rather than superhuman call to arms.
Greengrass’s roots in British docudrama and the somewhat-displaced nature of the production (Pinewood, not Hollywood, provided the sets) could maybe account for the lack of nationalistic chest-beating. And perhaps British notions of ‘fair play’ played a part in the conspicuously unHollywood approach to defining the bad guys. But although there is some room for nuance, Greengrass does not humanize the terrorists beyond making clear that they were human. Indeed, an overall rejection of conventional notions of characterization means even the film’s protagonists are only loosely-defined figures (the credits may name names, but to us they are only the guy in the baseball cap, the blonde hostess, etc.) and the decision-making collective.
United 93’s technical virtuosity (aided by Barry Ackroyd’s queasy, kinesthetic camerawork) and remarkable sensitivity cannot, however, hold off the most important question of motive. Not as to why people would be so murderously destructive, but why people would want (pay!) to relive such an unsweetened recreation of a recent traumatic event? Some point to the fact that the film shows only the anomaly: the terrorists’ only failure, the singular moment of meaningful heroism, on a day otherwise marked only by pointless death. Can some perverse enjoyment be taken by wishing ourselves into the passengers’ shoes? To be up there fighting, rather than grounded and impotent, frustrated by an unseen and unknown enemy? And yet, for the first half of the film at least, the film’s real-time drum-tight plotting, witnessing the hesitations and will-we-or-won’t-we glances between the would-be martyrs, could almost make us side with the terrorists, if only for reasons of expediency.
All in all, the experience of watching United 93 feels more like a sadistically-experimental group-therapy session than any form of escapist entertainment. As a thriller it is clearly effective, but its purpose is somewhat obscure. United 93 is certainly not a whodunnit, nor even a whydunnit, nor, really, a howdunnit. Perhaps it is best viewed simply as a ‘dunnit’. The only sensible reaction is to pray that the whole horrible ordeal is over as soon as possible.