Director: Paul Greengrass
United 93 is quite possibly the most powerful film I have ever experienced. The combination of a true story, how relatively recently it was played out and the mythic power that flight has on the American psyche is impossible to comprehend, yet the film interprets the events of 9/11 and its most heroic event in a way that transcends the medium. I remember seeing the trailer for this film in the theater last spring, and I knew there was no way I could experience it on the big screen. Watching for two minutes in a theater, I had goosebumps on my arms and a lump in my throat; watching it on a 13-inch television screen did not remove its powerful imagery. Its imagery and the emotion said imagery evokes is incomparable.
United Airlines Flight 93 is called The Flight That Fought Back, and long before this film was ever made, we knew that several people on board the flight used cells and airphones to tell their loved ones they were being hijacked but that they were okay, only to learn that both World Trade Center towers had been hit. Normal, everyday people were suddenly thrust into a death-rattled marathon that lasted less than an hour, and while nobody knows for sure what exactly happened in its last moments, the fact that United 93 went down in a field outside of a small Pennsylvania town instead of the Capitol Dome or the White House is the living definition of what is courage under fire. In essence, civilians with everything to lose did what the military, the White House, the NSA and NORAD did not do: they took the fight to the people terrorizing them, and by a brave few sacrificing their lives in what they had to know was going to be a literal fight to the death, they saved God only knows how many people.
The film builds and builds, the routines of the day begin speeding up, and — like that day five years ago — the second plane hitting the WTC tower tells the entire nation that no accidents are happening. More than any other event in the history of the world, the fact that the second plane hitting the second tower was witnessed live by millions of people makes it the most memorable single moment in the history of the world. I can tell you every single detail about that morning: who called to wake me up after the first tower was hit, how the furniture in my living room was laid out at the time and who exactly was at my house by the time we all witnessed the second tower hit. It is the pure definition of iconography, and the fact that even a movie about the event barely shows that same collection of frames, that massive jetliner angling at the last moment before hitting the tower, tells you how powerful the image really is.
Gradually, the action in the film transfers from the FAA, the military and the Boston and NYC air traffic control centers to inside United 93 itself, until the film's final half hour, when all the action takes place inside that plane. If there is a household civilian name associated with 9/11, it is Todd Beamer, the California rugby player who uttered the phrase "Let's roll" before a group of guerrilla passengers bum-rushed the hijackers and aided in taking the plane to the ground.
The film pulls no punches. There are no idiotic human interest plots beyond the action in the plane, and it is gut-wrenching. I don't think any of the passengers so much as exchanged names in the film, but when it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary hijacking, they begin defying the hijackers (one of whom has a fake bomb strapped to him) and formulating a plan. The plan they devised — the bum-rush and hopeful takeover of the plane — may have been crude, but it is now the blueprint of why no plane full of Americans will likely ever be hijacked again. The law of the jungle is in full order, and a crowd with the most basic weapons imaginable (butter knives and hot water) overtake men wielding knives, and the rest, obviously, is history.
United 93 should air on the eve of every 9/11 so long as The United States of America remain united. It should be shown to every student in school over the age of 14, and its message should never be forgotten. There are people in this world addicted to a corrupt belief system who desire to kill us in the most cutthroat manners imaginable. They desire to destroy our nation, our lives and our way of living, and there is nothing too low to which they will stoop in order to meet that goal.
Islamofascism as it stands today is incomparable to any threat the world has ever seen, the Cold War included. When a believer's ultimate goal is martyrdom, there is simply no stopping him. No rationalization in the world will change such thinking, no amends will ever be enough. United 93, more than anything else, shows what happens when people stop being polite and begin to get realistic about those who wish to destroy them.
© 2006 C. Brooks Kurtz
United 93, Universal Studios
U.S. Air Force Col. Marc Sasseville & Lt. Heather Penney
Flight 93 National Memorial
As with so many significant battles, large or small, the struggle to control the symbolism — to become the effective victors who write the history — continues long after the battle is over. — RWF, August 2010