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United 93 (9/10)

by Tony Medley

The events of 9/11 had effects other than a blatant, brutal attack on America. One of the residual effects was the misuse of the word “hero.” All the vainglorious politicos and media aside, except for the firefighters and a few others, the people who died in the WTC were not heroes; they were victims. Their families are not heroes, they are families of victims. The members of Congress, who gave the families millions of tax dollars, abused their discretion as stewards of the national treasury. The families deserve our sympathy for their horrible loss, but they were no more deserving of largesse from Congress than any other person who dies a violent death as a result of a criminal act. For more on this, check out the following link:

Congressional Largesse to 9/11 victims

In comparison, however, those who died on United 93 mounted an attack against the terrorists and caused the plane to crash instead of flying into The White House or Capitol. They were legitimate heroes who prevented a horrible disaster to the country.

Although “United 93” is ostensibly about one of the four planes involved in the attack of 9/11, it is actually about the entire attack.  Since we already know what happened, and that everyone on board United 93 died, why would anyone think a film about it could produce tension or even much interest? The answer is two words: Paul Greengrass.

Writer-director Greengrass last gave us the best chase film of the young millennium, “The Bourne Supremacy.” Now he exceeds himself by employing, along with Director of Photography Barry Akroyd and Editors Clare Douglas Christopher Rouse, and Richard Pearson, classic cinema vérité techniques, including hand-held cameras, to tell the story of the most vicious attack on America since December 7, 1941 through the point of view of the civilian and military air traffic controllers as they watched it unfold on their radar screens and listened to it through minimal radio contact with the planes affected, watched it on TV, and also out their window. The cinematography and the editing, with quick cuts, capture the tension in both the air traffic control centers and inside United 93 as the attack proceeds, all told in real time.

The film starts with the terrorists preparing for their flight and flashes back and forth from passengers calmly loading onto United 93 at the Newark International Airport to the air traffic controllers in the Newark tower, and in the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York, and in Boston, and to the Operations Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, and back to the passengers, crew, and terrorists aboard United 93 after it takes off.

In fact, United 93 originated at Newark International Airport, which does have a bird’s-eye view of the World Trade Center towers. It’s a haunting picture to have these people trying to figure out what’s going on when just out their window they can see the planes crash into the towers.

Adding to the integrity of the film, the cast includes Ben Sliney, the F.A.A.’s National Operations Manager, whose first day on the job at Herndon was that fateful 9/11/01, playing himself. Other real people included in the cast are actual United Air Lines captain JJ Johnson who plays United 93 captain Jason M. Dahl, commercial pilot Gary Commick, who plays first officer LeRoy Homer, Trish Gates and Sandy McDoniel, actual flight attendants who play Sandra Bradshaw and Lorraine G. Bay, both of whom perished on United 93. Further buttressing the sense of reality, real life air traffic controllers man similar posts in the film.

Even better, the cast doesn’t include matinee idols who haven’t done anything in their lives but preen in front of the mirror admiring their bleached teeth while pulling down $20 million a film. Instead, Greengrass cast the film with virtual unknown professional actors, all of whom look like ordinary people, but who expertly capture their commonplace characters, many of whom show that they are heroes to the core.

One of the main reasons why the film works so brilliantly is that Greengrass shows the stupefaction, perplexiity, and quick attention to the danger involved by the men and women who were at the center of the action, and does not limit himself to United 93 alone.

The only part of the film that slowed was when the center of attention shifts to the men and women trapped on United 93 as it descends into oblivion. The action begins to flag somewhat as Greengrass shows many of them calling their loved ones to say goodbye. We all know that this happened, and it's touching to show some of them. Unfortunately, there’s too much of it and it affects the pace of the film at a crucial moment.

Other than that, even though we all know the ending, this is a superb, not-to-be-missed film that compellingly recreates the events of that tragic day.

April 27, 2006