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“We Have A Real World Situation” – United 93 at 15

7 min read

Twenty years on and the effects of September 11th, 2001 are still felt across the world daily. It’s a moment in history that will forever live in those alive at time and as with JFK’s assassination, generations will continue to ask “where were you” on 9/11. Though arguably Spike Lee’s 2002 drama 25th Hour was the first mainstream acknowledgement of 9/11, placing a key speech from Edward Norton right outside ground zero, as well as the lyrics of U2’s Oscar nominated Hands That Built America coincided with Scorsese’s Gangs of New York epilogue showing the Twin Towers stand as Bono sang “it’s early fall, there’s a cloud in the New York skyline”, there had yet to be a true film about the events of that fateful day. 

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 double feature of War of the Worlds and Munich eloquently explained his personal and political feelings on the events without outright depicting the atrocities. In 2006, a mere five years after the events two films were released that directly dealt with the events. Oliver’s Stone’s World Trade Center was an A-list cast lead retelling of the heroic firefighters who attempted to save as many lives as they could from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, but to much more acclaim and on a much smaller scale Paul Greengrass dealt with what might be the defining moment of that day.

Greengrass plays his hand in the first scene of the film, instead of a montage of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 going about their mornings, setting up their personal motivations as well as the trials and tribulations of the flight crew, Greengrass immediately introduces us to the four men who will hijack the plane. United 93 opens with the four men – Ziad Jarrah, Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Nami and Ahmed al-Haznawi – praying and preparing for their day. It’s a lowkey scene devoid of sinister music, cursing western culture or talking about their motivations. What Greengrass shows us is that these were four men, human beings who had bought into a particular belief system.

The film continues in this manner, there are no formal character introductions and at times it’s hard to know what the people are actually called as none of them stop to introduce themselves. Greengrass stated he workshopped the screenplay, opting for a Mike Leigh -style improvisation that would then be beefed into a screenplay. The conversations are normal; cabin crew complaining about being tired, passengers asking for water. It’s this almost cinéma vérité style from cinematographer Barry Ackroyd that gives the film the sense of a docu-drama, as if you’re watching the events unfold for real. 

Once the flight takes off, the film’s events happen in real time, offering no chance for anyone to catch their breath. As soon as we’re up in the air, we’re thrown headfirst into flight control centres and military control rooms. Greengrass mixes the real people who were there controlling flights on that day, taking calls with actors, but wisely opts to keep the cast unfamiliar. At the time the actors used were professional but not known. Now, Christian Clemenson is an Emmy winning actor, known for his ongoing turn in hit show Boston Legal for which he received a further two nominations, but before that, he was often a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him player. Similarly Cheyenne Jackson has become a staple of Ryan Murphy projects including several seasons of American Horror Story and much of his career before was small parts and theatre.

Not only is the film a chronicle of the doomed United 93 flight – the only flight that day not to reach it’s intended target – but an examination of what that moment in time felt like to experience when you had to do something. Air controllers are shown almost laughing at the word “hijacking”, underlining just how uncommon and unthinkable it was. As the planes are shown hitting the World Trade Center, Greengrass cleverly cuts between shocked and terrified military personnel trying to figure out what to do and the blissfully unaware people aboard the flight.

As the film builds to the actual hijacking of the flight, Greengrass keeps focus on the extremists, particularly Khalid Adballa’s Jarrah, who is shown to be scared, unsure of his job or if his mission is a good idea. It’s he who gets a moment of sincere emotion before boarding the flight where he tells someone on the phone “I love you”. The intent of the film is clear throughout; this is a real world situation, not made of action movie thrills with faceless villains, but people committing acts of violence to others.

Given how Greengrass rewrote the action movie formula thanks to The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, it’s easy to forget that Greengrass comes from a journalism background. He was a director of current affairs program World in Action for ITV, as well as co-authoring Spycatcher with Peter Wright that was so full of true information about MI5 the government attempted to ban it. Even before Bourne, Greengrass showed this real-world, true story interest with tv movie The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday. But in United 93, we have his most accomplished film so far.

In fact, Greengrass’ journalistic intent was clear when the initial closing credit line “America’s War on Terror had begun” was changed to the more crowd pleasing “Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001”. Changing it somewhat obfuscates the message of the film, that this was not just an act of aggression to which the Government of the US acted swiftly, and violently, but a human tragedy in which human lives were lost. 

The reaction to the film was all but unanimously praised – it holds a 90% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes – and appeared on every significant top ten list of that year, topping several. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards – one for editing, another for Greengrass’ direction. But the acclaim, and awards, forget the impact the film had. This was the first major film to openly and directly deal with the events; it had only been five years since the events and the wounds were still fresh, the feeling of appropriate-ness was hotly debated at the time.

Yet, despite those fears that it may be too soon to start making Hollywood movies, the film was a success – not just in the US, but globally. It made over fives times it’s budget at the global box office, with people returning to view it more than once. Moreover, the opening weekend gross had a promise of a ten percent donation to the memorial of the United 93 victims. 

Even so, the film was not without controversy and there is still debate regarding the final moments of the film. As per the film, and the families of those who died, the passengers stormed the cockpit and struggled with the hijackers before the plane plummeted. According to the investigation, the hijackers forced the plane into a nosedive as the passengers were seconds from breaching the cockpit. Greengrass, who worked closely with the families, tells the story as they have recounted it and based on his research as well as what it appears from the blackbox recording but the two stories don’t match.

It’s also true that the portrayal of German passenger Christian Adams, played by Erich Redman, as being the only passenger who wants to appease the extremists aboard was met with criticism from Adams’ family. Redman has stated his portrayal was more of a man who wanted a well thought out plan of action and not to make rash decisions, but many have interpreted his character as a “coward” when compared to the heroic actions of the others on board the flight – there is no evidence to back up any claim that Adams advocated for appeasement, or was not involved in the violent take back of the flight.

In the years following its release, there have been decidedly few films about the flights themselves. United 93 remains the only theatrical film about the flight that failed it’s intended target – either the Capitol building or the White House – and it’s companion piece World Trade Center appear as the only “true” story of those directly involved. Most films since that broach the subject are about the political implications – Zero Dark Thirty, Vice, The Report, The Looming Tower and W. – or are fictional stories about the day. 

The reasons might be varied, but one strong reason is that almost every other story from people directly involved, or at the scenes in New York have been told in documentary form, usually by themselves. This was 2001, when we were just entering the early days of phone-cameras, and cheap camcorders. Most of the events of 9/11 can be found by people in their homes recording it for themselves and so there is very little need to make a fiction out of the real raw footage. Most documentaries use this footage, and the real person accounts to tell their stories instead of having actors perform.

What it might be, and perhaps more critically, is that even twenty years on it’s an event few can understand. Politics aside, no one saw the events coming, no one on the four flights knew what would happen to them, no one in the control centres, no one watching at home. This was an event from the blue, that took people by surprise, and that frightens people.

Whatever the reason, United 93 appears to be the first and final line in 9/11 cinema, eloquently illustrating the personal and the political in real time without ever falling into action hero tropes. The real legacy of Greengrass’ film isn’t so much the acclaim, or even the fact that it got made, but the collective, global release of pent up sorrow. People were allowed to grieve an event that goes beyond words. Greengrass offered images and an account of what real true heroes look like when forced into action through no fault of their own.

Or as the film itself says “a real world situation”.

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