By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
When Phillip Gavin, publisher of The History Place, suggested I review
United 93, I was disappointed to discover that the only local
theater showing it was one my wife and I avoid like the plague. This
particular AMC multiplex is a magnet for local teens, who tend to disregard
even the relaxed notions of decorum we fifty-something filmgoers have
learned to grin and bear.
We arrived 30 minutes before the feature's starting time. As the venue
gradually filled, we found ourselves repeatedly relocating ever farther
forward in a futile attempt to put some distance between us and the
rowdy teens we had anticipated. As the preliminary programming slid
seamlessly into the previews, the chatter around us abated only because
mouths were filled with popcorn (free refills on the jumbo size, if
you can imagine). Cell phones chimed in with pop tunes while teenyboppers
prospected in their purses' detritus to locate and turn them off.
Then, at last, the film began--with a prayer. A terrorist sat cross-legged
on a hotel bed, Koran in hand, chanting. These scenes of morning prayers
flowed with the traffic and the airport crowds into the routine chores
and chatter of a cross-country flight getting ready for the five-and-a-half
hour flight from Newark to San Francisco. The homely chit-chat of pilot
and co-pilot, the flight crew, and various passengers, which would normally
be boring, was poignant in the knowledge of what would inevitably follow
in the next 90 minutes.
My wife and I had advanced as close to the screen as we could stand
to be, when at the last moment six teenaged girls had shuffled giggling
into the row in front of us. Almost subconsciously, I began rehearsing
the balanced admonition that I hoped would induce silence instead of
precipitating a noisy confrontation. My fears seemed confirmed when
the chatter onboard the departing aircraft was echoed by the chatter
in the rows around me.
In the style to which films such as Traffic, Crash, and
Syriana have accustomed us, Director Paul Greengrass uses quick
cuts and hand-held cameras to create a sense of real-time verisimilitude.
It's a style that not only evokes documentary and news footage; it mimics
web-surfing, too. The audience, predominantly from the age group of
the six kids in front of us, settled down. Then, as if an invisible
Greengrass whispered, "Now that I have your undivided attention,"
he turned up the tension--slowly, mercilessly.
As the air traffic controllers at Newark watch planes crash and explode
across the short span of water that separates their tower from the World
Trade Center, they connect the dots to the airliners out of Boston which
they've lost radio and radar contact with in the previous few moments.
Meanwhile, on United 93, as the flight crew innocently revels in the
small passenger manifest--only about 40 paying customers to serve--the
hijackers agonize, argue among themselves about whether the time is
right, and finally act with horrifying violence.
The remainder of the movie shifts back and forth between the forces
on the ground--military, FAA--who remain inexorably a confused step
behind the hijackers, and the hapless (but not helpless) passengers
onboard the doomed aircraft. Ironically, these 'victims' are able to
act, decisively in fact, while the military struggles to find armed
planes and get them on proper headings to provide some air cover for
the nation's capital, and FAA officials finally ground everything as
the only way to sort things out.
Worth noting is the fact that, if the events of 9/11 had happened even
just a few years earlier, the passengers on United Flight 93 would probably
have died quietly in their seats, still assuming that they would be
rescued in a ransom deal. The telephone technology of the 21st century
enabled multiple passengers and flight attendants to piece together
the events in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, and come to the conclusion
that their only chance was to retake the plane at all costs.
They actually did have a chance, if only a slim one. One passenger
was an experienced pilot. Another had ground control experience in his
background. If they could have wrested control of the cockpit quickly--well,
they just might have lived to enjoy a hero's welcome back on the ground.
In a fictional film, Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford or perhaps Steven Segal
would have done just that.
But, as all of us in the theater that night already knew, this wasn't
a Hollywood blockbuster action film. This was real. In the real world,
these people whom the filmmakers make you like don't walk away.
When United Flight 93 finally hits the ground, some 90 minutes after
the start of its flight (and the film), three of the young ladies in
front of us burst into uncontrolled sobbing. Their weeping was echoed
here and there around the otherwise-silent chamber.
Next, first two hands, then a dozen, and then most all in the theater,
applauded. The young folks, along with all the rest of us, applauded
a sensitive, stirring recreation of a moment in history that is not--
for a change in their young, real-time lives--an episode in a musty
textbook. United 93 reminded them history has intruded into their
Rated R - For language, and scenes of terror