United 93 (2006)

Dir. Paul Greengrass. Starring Christian Clemenson, Khalid Abdalla, Ben Sliney

Indulge me in the following thought experiment:

You discover one evening, after coming home from work, that there is a friendly space alien in your home. He means you no harm, but he just wants to experience movie-watching with a human. He has studied certain aspects of humanity while remaining ignorant of our history; he understands our emotions, our reasoning, our daily actions, but couldn’t tell you about World War II. He goes to the shelf where you keep your movies and he pulls out United 93. You don’t know anything about this movie, do you? you ask. And he replies, Nope, it just has an interesting title. I wonder if the friendly space alien, who can appreciate emotion and empathy but is clueless about September 11th, would be as affected by United 93 as I was. The answer, of course, is no, but I think it would be a very near thing. Paul Greengrass and his team, with their real-time depiction of 9/11 from the perspective of FAA execs, flight controllers, NORAD types, and United 93 passengers (peacefully intentioned or otherwise), have pulled off a titanic task: they told the story like it was new. As far as that’s possible, I think the film wants us to view it with new eyes, relying on the information which the characters have; so few accounts of 9/11 foreground what does United 93 does.

Much of the early action in the film follows Ben Sliney (playing himself), who had been the FAA National Operations officer for all of about fifteen minutes before flight controllers begin to deduce that hijackings are taking place on different planes across the Northeast. Flight controllers in Boston are tracking American Airlines 11, which does not respond to repeated hails, until it suddenly disappears over Manhattan. The flight controllers are confused – where could the plane have gone? In that moment, a viewer’s heart sinks, because s/he knows exactly where that plane is: it’s in and around the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Not long after, people can see the massive plume of smoke rising into the sky from the North Tower; CNN gets cameras on the building, and the reports of a prop plane smashing into the tower suddenly seem ludicrous. People begin to piece the situation together at the FAA, begin to understand that jetliner has collided with the building. Later on, a second plane coming out of the sky – Greengrass allows us to see United 175 coming, ghostlike, and, as it did on television with so many people watching, explode into the South Tower. The sobering effect that the World Trade Center has on the FAA is mirrored in NORAD when it’s shown that a plane has crashed into the Pentagon; a room that had previously been full of chatter and action, of resolve and, frankly, the only hope for ending the crisis, goes silent. The commander in the back room can only get a few planes in the air; I can’t protect the entire eastern seaboard with those, he protests to whichever higher-up he’s got on the phone. What are the rules of engagement? he asks. Yes, he understands it’s a commercial flight with Americans onboard. Does he need the Secretary of Defense’s permission? The Vice-President? It turns out he needs presidential approval for his jets to engage the passenger planes; the film never says it, but around the time this officer must have been calling for orders, George Bush was in a Florida classroom reading a book to children. (At this point I was trying desperately not to remember that tidbit, but Michael Moore has burned it in my brain forever.) The helpless flight controllers, Sliney’s confusion, the officer’s frustration are our proxy for the total chaos which reigned before noon on September 11th. As viewers, we can’t help but slip back into our omniscient perspective, wanting to scream at the people – not vituperatively but vehemently – that something so far beyond their imagination is going on. When Sliney calls for all planes to be grounded (which, as one of his employees says, awestruck, will result in billion dollar losses), he is unshakable. No more crashes into buildings, he says. There are more than 4,000 planes in the air; they come down now, with absolutely no more planes entering American airspace. Once or twice we have seen the boards which show, in an eerie neon green, the moving blotches symbolizing aircraft. In those moments, we see the situation from the perspective of the air traffic controllers. In the years to come, we will accept that four planes were hijacked. In the moment, the existential horror of not knowing which of those 4,000 planes could be a cruise missile is utterly overwhelming.

The film chooses claustrophobic camera angles. The flight controllers work in dim rooms, and we spend so much time up close on their screens. Much of the open space of the NORAD situation room is defeated by the small glass enclosure where the chief officer is making phone calls in the dark. Sliney has a great big open window in front of him, but we are so often looking at his profile, and at the scrum of aides scurrying around him, that a fairly big room looks much smaller. United 93, like any airplane, is terrifically enclosed. Greengrass uses that to effect, even though the field of play in the plane is much larger in this film than it is for the average passenger on a transcontinental flight. We see passengers peering over their seats as if they were great hedges or brick walls, huddled and hunched together in the back of the plane, trying desperately to charge up the aisle to the cockpit. We look at them from below, like we’re the armrests on aisle seats peering up into their sweating, tearful faces. Greengrass, who is probably best known for Jason Bourne movies, is often described as a director with a gift for thrillers. But these are the angles of a horror movie, which of course is precisely what’s happening. As much as any other movie of the past decade, United 93 expands the definition of the horror genre by emphasizing the helplessness of the subjects. When one passenger realizes that the hijackers are on a suicide mission, it becomes abundantly clear that they must try to take control of the plane; even though they have some (unexpectedly cathartic) success, killing two hijackers and ending the mission, it’s obvious to everyone onboard that they’ll not escape. One stewardess, calling home, says she would “quit tomorrow” if she can only get out of it; very few of the other passengers realistically have an eye on tomorrow. Most of them, in scenes which are emotional napalm, call home. What begins as a way to let their families know they’re on a hijacked plane – and to learn that the World Trade Center and Pentagon have been attacked – turn into final goodbyes. “Call your people,” an older woman says to a younger one. “I just love you more than anything,” a mother says to her children. “Tell my wife I love her,” a man says to someone – apparently he couldn’t raise his wife on the phone. The six or seven passengers who band together, armed with a fire extinguisher and forks and fists, have it in their minds to replace the terrorist flying the plane with a recreational pilot (David Rasche) who will then do his best to land. The plane was only several thousand feet up; the pilot and ringleader (Abdalla), softened a little by his glasses and his hesitancy to begin the hijacking, is buckled in. From a vantage point which focuses less on the struggle in the cockpit and more on the ground rising up through the windows with alarming celerity, it becomes clear that the “I love you” passengers had been right all along.

The film is not shy about making sure everyone is painfully normal, from the pudgy white flight controllers to the cross-section of Americans on United 93. Like filmmakers fifty and sixty years earlier (like Truffaut for The 400 Blows, Bresson for A Man Escaped, and, weirdly enough, Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives) Greengrass uses untrained actors and unfamous faces to fill his cast. I recognized Rasche and his charateristically lined face (and desperately longed for a “In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king” to break the tension). Cheyenne Jackson, who I know primarily from 30 Rock, plays one of the passenger ringleaders on the plane. Olivia Thirlby would be in Juno the following year, and John Rothman, more than two decades earlier, donned a big ol’ beard to be the similarly doomed John Reynolds in Gettysburg. But for the most part these were people I had not seen in a film before and would not see again. After about twenty minutes, I stopped trying to place them and started to think of them as something like the real, basically anonymous people they portrayed.

Horror movies are most effective when they zero in on a few individuals. The Exorcist is scary because it affects just four or five people; The Amityville Horror is centered on one house, and The Shining  and Psycho on one hotel. United 93, even though its characters are mostly nameless and their backgrounds unknowable, is deeply personal in the way that the best horror movies are. Without an escape, all that’s left is to stare death in the face as it opens its mouth wide.

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