A soon-to-be hijacker has hidden a blade in his waistband. Onboard, a flight attendant, unaware of this, is hunting down some sugar for the flight. A passenger squirms in his seat, trying to get comfortable. A pilot laughs off a message from his wife, who's checking to see if he's OK. He says he'll call her when they land.
Moviegoers watching this already know he'll never make that call, because he's the pilot of United Flight 93, which will crash in Pennsylvania. Knowing what we do about the events of 9/11, a lot of people have been wondering — are we ready for a movie that depicts those events, those moments when our world changed?
Sure, we've had films about disasters soon after they've occurred, even movies about wars shortly after the battles were over, and we've even come to accept oblique references to 9/11 in films like "War of the Worlds." Still, people seem to be approaching "United 93" and Oliver Stone's upcoming "World Trade Center" with trepidation. One New York theater pulled the trailer for "United 93" after customers complained.
Is it just too soon for this movie?
"It's a fair question to ask," says its director, Paul Greengrass. "It's a question we've all asked ourselves. I've made a few films over the years about terrorism and political violence [most notably the 1972 Northern Ireland massacre in 'Bloody Sunday'], and after the 9/11 Commission finished their report, and the families of the survivors unanimously said they wanted this film to happen, it felt like it was time to tell this story."
"Clearly, there are people who aren't ready to see this," said David Beamer, father of Todd Beamer, who died on United 93. "I certainly understand that, and that's their decision to make. But we must not forget."
In order to do the story justice, Greengrass decided to film it as realistically as possible. "This is not a [Jerry] Bruckheimer movie," he said. The script, if it can be called that, was more of a document laying out known facts, from the flight manifest, the 9/11 Commission report, the cockpit voice recording and the phone calls that passengers made to their families, many of which were left on answering machines.
Greengrass also cast largely unrecognizable, primarily New York-based actors who received information about their characters directly from the families — down to what clothing was worn, what luggage was used, what newspaper they probably would have read, and whether they would order coffee or tea that morning. From there, the actors spoke words that were known to have been said, and improvised the rest. "We had the freedom of not having to know a line," marveled actor Christian Clemenson, who plays Thomas Burnett. "It's unheard of."
And to play the movie's flight attendants, pilots, military personnel and air traffic controllers, Greengrass cast non-actors who actually held those jobs in real life, some of whom were actively involved on that day, such as FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who plays himself.
"You take a scene," Greengrass explained, "and you say, 'Here's a scenario: Let's imagine that you're an air traffic controller and suddenly an airplane drops its transponder. What do you do?' The truth is, that particular 'actor' in the film is an air traffic controller who was there on that day. So there's no point in writing him a line. He knows what the procedure is. The precise wording isn't necessary, and it would mitigate against what I most wanted, which is for the event to feel alive."
"One of my favorite shots is the stewardess, who is an actual United Airlines stewardess, pointing out the exits," Clemenson said. "You can see she's done it a million times, and it's such a real moment. No actress could do that."
You might think the easiest acting job would be to play yourself; but it was still difficult for those re-creating where they were and what they did on that day. "It stops your heart," Sliney said. "It was all familiar to me, but when United 175 hits that building, I didn't like looking. I could never, ever, to this day, look at an airliner in the sky again the same way."
Still, even with all the attention paid to accuracy, some changes have been made, possibly for length, possibly for other reasons. For instance, in real life, one of the hijackers attempted to make an announcement to the passengers, telling them there was a bomb on board. But he mistook the radio for the intercom and sent the message to the air traffic control center in Cleveland. That's not in the movie. But probably the most noticeable change is that Beamer's now-famous call to action, "Let's roll," is downplayed, to the point where you might miss it.
"There's been so much written about that phrase," sighed actor David Alan Basche, who plays Todd Beamer.
It actually sounds more like "Let's go," and it's impossible to tell which of the actors says it, which is part of the point. None of the characters have time for introductions, anyway.
"That's when the mythologizing begins," Clemenson said. "And we wanted to avoid mythologizing."
The truth about "Let's roll" is that, according to the 9/11 Commission report and the flight data recorder, a passenger yelled, "Let's roll it" — meaning "Let's roll the service cart into the cockpit door like a battering ram." Not exactly movie magic; but in the film, it doesn't detract from the moment when the passengers decide to fight back. And they're not fighting to save the Capitol or the White House, because they don't even know those are the designated targets. They're simply trying to survive an unthinkable situation. And the filmmakers decided that that's heroic enough.
"You learn about history sometimes through movies first, " Basche said. "I learned about the Cuban missile crisis through 'The Missiles of October,' and all I can do is hope that this movie stands up alongside that."
"Films don't change the world, but they can make people talk," Greengrass said. "And they can make you look at the world with fresh eyes. This movie provides a credible, authentic portrait of that day, and it allows us to draw some wisdom from it. Wherever you sit politically, we are all in that same stage of being wounded and trying to figure what to do next. Those people on United 93 had the courage to confront what we're all dealing with. The question is, do we?"
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