United 93
Paul Greengrass, 2006

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center and one of them into the Pentagon. But one, United Airlines flight 93, had been delayed, and so passengers who called loved ones via GTE airphones and cell phones were able to learn that the hijackers were crashing the planes into buildings. The UAL 93 passengers therefore fought back, forcing the hijackers to crash the plane into a field in Pennsylvania. And that is why the United States of America still has a Capitol Building.

Very hard to say. On the one hand, this is a mercifully unschmaltzy recreation of the events it chronicles. It is basically a miracle that this movie was able to be made without the usual Stupid Screenwriter Tricks — lines of dialogue at the beginning repeated at the end, characters with One Distinguishing Quirk, etc. This is basically the security-cam version: there's no backstory, no big picture. At the same time, it's, to borrow from Duncan Stevens, unedifying. I already knew what happened on the plane; I already knew that the response of US officials was chaotic; seeing those things acted out didn't really add anything. Ultimately, United 93 felt like a respectful snuff film. All it does is show forty people get murdered.

On September 11th, 2001, Jennifer woke up early to go vote in the mayoral primary before going to work in midtown Manhattan. I wasn't registered in New York, but I got up early too and logged onto the MUD. I missed the first few messages about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, but by nine o'clock I was watching Channel 2 (the only TV station whose antenna wasn't on 1 WTC) and relaying everything to people who were stuck at work and could otherwise only follow the story through frozen web sites. Most of the news turned out to be misinformation. For instance, here was one report about UAL 93 that I passed on to the MUD:

Adam says, "Hijacked plane from Pittsburgh now circling over DC"
Jearl says, "eeagh"
mcp says, "good god"
ddyte asks, "how is it that these planes have not been shot down?"
Adam says, "Military says the plane is being tracked and will be shot down if it makes a threatening move"
Gunther says (to ddyte), "that is what I want to know"
Iain says (to Adam), "Mmf, seems sensible."
Sargent asks (of ddyte), "hope that the plane can be saved? Fear of having debris fall on people?"
Adam says, "It's very sick-making to think what must be going on inside that plane"

Of course, as it turned out, the plane was not from Pittsburgh but rather had crashed nearby, had been headed for DC but never come close, and had never been in danger of being shot down because the military never got its act together. But the part about it being sick-making to think about what was going on inside the plane was accurate. And with United 93, here it is in widescreen.

The murder of forty people would be awful to contemplate anywhere, of course, but something about a plane makes it even worse. I think it's the fact that since every plane is basically the same, with an identical set of rituals, anyone who's been on a plane can look at something happening in any other plane and think, "Whoa, I've been there!" The same can't really be said for a brokerage firm in the World Trade Center or a command post in the Pentagon. Of course, there are distinguishing touches. If at any point I needed a reminder that I could have happened to be on one of the hijacked planes just as easily as any of these people, all I had to do was look at that Cal baseball cap.

At the time, though, my remark notwithstanding, I was too caught up in the adrenaline rush of a crisis to really dwell on what was happening in the planes. Once I knew Jennifer was okay, I was first fixated on tracking every last development, and then once new information started to die down, I worried about the response. Though it seems silly in retrospect, on September 11th anything seemed possible. Maybe mobs would form. Maybe the US would launch a nuclear strike. Maybe the attacks would be used as a pretext for disastrous foreign wars and an assault on civil liberties. It seemed vital to keep a sense of perspective. Twice as many people were killed on September 11th by smoking-related illness than by terrorists. Fewer than one one-hundredth as many American civilians were killed on September 11th than Iraqi civilians were killed in the five years that followed. Terrorists cannot launch a large attack the way an army can. Terrorism depends on people being disproportionately scared by a small attack. And it worked. I don't think Dennis Miller has stopped wetting his pants yet, even as his chance of death by terrorist attack has increased by maybe 0.0001%.

But for the people on the plane, the fear was not disproportionate. They were about to die. I was driving northbound on I-880 in January 2006 when the horror of their situation struck me and I started to cry. Theirs, and that of the people in the towers, and of everyone who had to make final phone calls, everyone who had to brace for terrible impact, be it on the side of Skyline Road or on the plaza above Vesey Street.

Spatch says, "I wonder where the plane that crashed in Pittsburgh was headed, target-wise"
Emily asks (of Spatch), "did it crash in a relatively unpopulous area?"
Adam says, "Yes"
Adam says, "Rural PA"
Spatch says, "Yeah. Very rural"
Emily says, "I wonder if that was some kind of last-ditch act of heroism on the part of the pilot"
Thrax says, "That's what I was thinking."
Thrax says, "A hijacking attempt that was thwarted."
Steve says, "I like that idea. In fact, I need that to be true somehow."

Because United 93 doesn't really tell those of us in 2006 anything we didn't know, at first I thought that maybe it was made for future generations to whom September 11th will be just a name in history books, like Pearl Harbor. But Roger Ebert made an interesting point when he wrote, "It is not too soon for United 93, because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11." That may be right. Maybe the film was made primarily not for the present or for the future, but for the past. Maybe it was made to give a belated answer to Steve and everyone else on that day who had the same thought: Yes, it's true.

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