American Enterprise Online
May 8, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd
By bringing the story of Flight 93 to the screen in the aptly named United 93, Paul Greengrass has done far more than simply tell a tale of heroism and horror. He has reminded us of the nature of our enemy and ourselves—and of this generation’s fight for freedom.
Filmed in a documentary style, United 93 begins marching toward its crescendo by offering snapshots of modern American life. We hear fragments of conversations about vacations in Europe, business in New York, family in California. Laptop computers and cell phones serve to underscore how self-contained, detached, even myopic these unsuspecting heroes are. Without warning, as we know, they were yanked from their worlds and pressed by circumstance and by choice into something bigger than themselves.
By circumstance, their plane—like the planes that maimed Manhattan and scarred the Pentagon—was doomed to play a part in history on September 11, 2001. But by choice, by their collective will, they would actually change history and spare their countrymen yet another bloody, psychological trauma: In Greengrass’ chilling account, upon seizing control of the plane, the lead terrorist pulls out a picture of his likely target—the US Capitol, which sat helpless and defenseless just 20 minutes away from Flight 93’s crash site in rural Pennsylvania.
But before they rewrite the final chapter of that terrible Tuesday, before they become United 93, the passengers wrestle all the emotions we came to know in the days and months that followed their sacrifice—confusion and disbelief, shock and anger, desperation and despair, fear and terror. Like us, they argue about what to do and what not to do, about risks and dangers. They consider other options: Can we negotiate? Do they want a ransom? Can we just turn back home? They pray and cry and finally come to grips with the mission before them, the only option left. “We’re alone,” one of them grimly explains. “No one’s going to help us.”
On their journey to selflessness, the distinctions of class and gender, race and religion disappear for these Everyman heroes, who are now United 93. The only distinction that remains is the one that separates right and wrong, good and evil.
In a movie full of metaphor, perhaps the most compelling has to do with a bomb strapped to one of the terrorists. The passengers initially cower and run from it, even though some believe it’s a fake. But they soon realize that whether it’s fake or real, it is being used as a diversion, a way to keep them at bay while other terrorists race to do something far worse than simply blow up an airliner. “I’ll break his arm,” one of the heroes finally decides, coming to grips with the truth that living a life under the threat of madmen is not a life worth living.
In this moment, Greengrass reminds us that United 93 taught us how to deal with a nuclear Iran: If (when) negotiations finally fail, when it becomes obvious that inaction will open the door to something worse than action, it’s time to use force—and break the terrorist regime.
As the passengers progress through their light-speed metamorphosis, Greengrass cuts back and forth to air-traffic controllers, FAA officials and military command centers, drawing us into a swirl of chaos and confusion, information overload and scarcity, helplessness and hopelessness. Veterans of combat know it as the fog of war, and it can rattle and overwhelm even the best soldiers, most powerful armies, most technologically sophisticated nations.
The fog lifts quickly for United 93, of course. In the span of a half-hour, they piece together the puzzle on their own, with no help from CNN. “They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world,” as Greengrass observes.
Next, it is the military and air-traffic controllers who find their way through the fog. “We’re at war with someone,” says one of the supervisors as he gazes at video of a burning World Trade Center. “Where’s the military?” shouts another. All the while, military commanders are struggling to get airspace cleared for fighters, to guess which city to defend, which passenger plane to intercept—and how to bring down some 4,200 guided missiles. To his credit, Greengrass reminds us that unarmed F-16s were scrambled, their pilots dutifully prepared to ram the hijacked planes—and sacrifice themselves—in order to defend our nation.
Finally, for most Americans, the fog lifted in the days that followed, as we came to grips with a war that began long before 9/11. For those Americans who still stumble about in this fog—or who have wandered back into it—United 93 points a way out.