A film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, D.C., could so easily turn into a shlocky exhibition of emotion. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 never succumbs to this temptation. From boarding to crash landing, it’s a harrowingly realistic account of the heroic passenger plot that foiled the hijacking of the eponymous flight and prevented it from destroying its intended target, the U.S. Capitol Building. Yet even more remarkable than its intensity is that the film conveys the human side of the disaster without stooping to mawkishness or chauvinism. We get a refreshingly unbiased glimpse into not only the fear and desperation of the victims but also the spiritual mania that drove the four Muslim men to commit these heinous acts. With its religious backdrop and attempt to truthfully narrate a historical event that occurs within a narrow time frame (undoubtedly with a few embellishments and lacuna fillings), it reminded me of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
The first thing you’ll notice about this film is that there are no stars in it. And that’s a good thing. Imagine how silly this could have been if Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, or Leonardo diCaprio had played one of the victims, not just because these actors are dumb and overrated but also because it would have diverted attention from the fact that this was just another ordinary day in the life of ordinary Americans. Stewardesses chat about their hubbies. Corporate types tinker with their laptops. The pilot recites his sing-songy spiel over the address system. The flight is delayed for 45 minutes. Yup, business as usual.
Not so for the terrorists, who greet the morning in the knowledge that this day will be their last. In the opening scene, we see the perpetrators chanting prayers to Allah as they genuflect beside the beds in their hotel room. Aboard the plane, their apprehension is apparent as they dart furtive glances from one side of the cabin to the other. The camera particularly focuses on the ringleader of the operation, Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla). With his glasses and clean-shaven appearance, he looks more like a Western intellectual than an Islamic militant. The delay causes him especial consternation as he fidgets in his seat, gulping air and renewing his vows to Allah in a hushed tone.
Once the air traffic problem is resolved, causing Jarrah to breathe a short-lived sigh of relief, the tension again mounts. “We have to do it now” comes the plea from one of Jarrah’s henchmen in Arabic. Yet still, Jarrah holds back waiting for the right time. Finally he tacitly nods the OK and they spring into action. Two remain in the cabin, one with a fake bomb attached to his body, the other shouting angrily at the passengers in his mother tongue and brandishing box cutters, slashing one middle-aged man up something awful. The third cohort storms the cabin with Jarrah, who finally sheds his reluctance and lurches forward, like the good Jihadist he is, to stab the pilot and usurp the controls.
What’s interesting about Jarrah’s hesitance is that it opens the door to a somewhat sympathetic view of the hijackers. We could, of course, view it as nothing more than fear of botching the operation, but Jarrah’s constant need to verbally renew devotion to his god seems to also reveal his uncertainty about the moral rectitude of his actions. It’s like an embezzler who robs from his company and convinces himself it’s justified because the company he works for is evil and he plans to give some of his gains to charity. Or an ugly woman who keeps primping herself in the mirror and telling herself she’s beautiful. In short, it’s the dichotomy between truth and the human need to believe. No one in his right mind could think that conducting a suicide mission and slaying a cabin full of innocent people was anything but hideously evil. But as the film shows, the 9/11 terrorists weren’t crazy so much as they were utter slaves to a cause, miserable pawns who had been brainwashed by higher-ranking opportunists like Osama bin Laden. It’s as if they sacrificed their free will to the devil. Not that this even remotely exonerates them from culpability. However, I think it does shed light on their psychology and prompts us to view their actions with a modicum of pathos.
Needless to say, any sympathy we might be able to muster for the terrorists is nothing compared with the anguish we feel for the airborne captives, cowering in their seats and whimpering in fear; frantically calling their nearest and dearest by air phone to speak their last “I love you”; reciting the Lord’s Prayer together as they await their demise (interestingly, this scene is juxtaposed alongside one in which Jarrah recites another verse to Allah). As viewers, we know that any one of us could have boarded United 93 on that fateful day.
Just as we could have boarded any of the other three flights that reached their targets, American 11 and United 175 that slammed into and razed the World Trade Center and American 77 that chiseled a plane-sized dent in the Pentagon. Air traffic control, led by manager Ben Sliney (who plays himself in the movie), has only just been informed that multiple planes have been hijacked. He and his crew watch helplessly as plumes of smoke billow from the Twin Towers’ lateral wounds. We relive the moment with them, remembering the day when we stood agape along with the entire nation, refusing to believe that something like this could happen on American soil. (I, for one, had just returned from a University class and watched the mayhem from a TV in my residential college’s rec room.) Sliney may sound idiotic when he says, after the fact, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this; I can tell you that right now.” But I think that’s how we all felt. The shock was so great that nobody knew what to say or think.
Nobody except the band of brothers aboard United 93.
All Americans probably would like to think that, faced with similar circumstances, they would act with similar presence of mind upon getting wind of the other successful attacks and surmising that a similar end awaits them. Maybe, maybe not. United 93 reminds us that the passengers’ courage to conquer their adrenaline rushes and meet the moment head on must have been remarkable. These are not U.S. special operatives combatants but ordinary civilians, charging through the aisles toward the cockpit and shouting battle cries as they unite against a common enemy. Amid the media hoopla about firefighters dying in the line of duty, many seem to have forgotten about this. United 93 helps ensure that the passengers’ heroic resolve does not go unheralded when posterity’s youngsters read about this notorious event in their history books.
Americans should be proud of Greengrass, too. It’s incredible when a filmmaker finds that magical combination of thoughtfulness and visceral excitement. Like the finest documentaries, United 93 doesn’t merely recount the facts; it takes us inside the minds of both captives and captors to let us draw our own conclusions about the psychology behind religious fanaticism on the one hand and motivation in the face of danger on the other. And even though most Americans will have an inkling of the film’s plot going into it, it will hold them in suspense strapped to their chairs to the very end. For those who watch United 93, the “No Seat Belt” sign is never turned off.
Joe’s Grade: A