From bad reality to moving drama

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From bad reality to moving drama

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The headline on the front page of the first issue of The Onion, a satirical newspaper, to come out after Sept. 11, 2001, read: “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.” As many commentators pointed out after the tragedy, anyone outside New York itself experienced 9/11 in much the same way they would a disaster film. Except, as The Onion put it, “This is actually happening, and it’s just not cool at all.”
National television gave the entire country a front-row seat for the fall of the towers, shot from dozens of angles and re-run ad infinitum, along with interviews with firefighters, police officers, victims’ family members and survivors.
So Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday”) turns his camera away from the parts of 9/11 that were instantly documented, and toward places there were no cameras: inside United flight 93, whose passengers are rumored to have turned on the hijackers, possibly preventing them from destroying another target, and on the front-line decision-making centers of the U.S. government. The result is a moving examination of an unforgettable day.
Most of the film takes place at air traffic control centers in Boston, New York and Cleveland, the Federal Aviation Administration control center in Herndon, Virginia, and at the Northeast division of Norad, the North American air defense system. In this footage, the confusion and total lack of preparation for a tragedy of this type and magnitude is obvious. The staff at Herndon didn’t even take initial reports of a suspected hijacking seriously, instead cracking jokes. As more reports came in and the towers began to be attacked, dismissiveness turned to frustration. The FAA didn’t know what flights were hijacked and where they were, while air defense officers had trouble scrambling sufficient air power and reaching the president for the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft.
Meanwhile, the passengers on flight 93 act out the story everyone knows: the hijacking, learning of the attacks, trying to wrest control of the aircraft from the terrorists and the ultimate crash in a field in Pennsylvania. The message: A few people who had never before met were better prepared to defend the United States than all our government’s lines of defense.
It would be easy for this to become just another trite, sensationalistic, exploitative docu-melodrama, but Greengrass has conducted meticulous research into what actually had been said, and, whenever he could, cast real aviation and military professionals to play themselves. The head of the Herndon FAA headquarters on Sept. 11, for example, was Ben Sliney, who, in the film, is played by Ben Sliney.
Greengrass casts lesser-known actors as the passengers on flight 93, accentuating the anonymity of this group of heroes. Hand-held cameras and a simple chronological presentation let the story tell itself.
The hijackers themselves are given fair treatment. Greengrass faithfully portrays what a difficult task this must have been for them to carry out, humanizing them without implicitly condoning their actions.
“United 93” is a sensitive and important film, and it will be a valuable resource for generations to come in understanding the national response to a horrific morning.


by Ben Applegate
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