Flight plan

Is the September 11 drama United 93 exploitation, or really good filmmaking? Jane Kansas books a seat to find out.

On September 11, 2001, at 10:03am, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Forty-four on board died.

United 93, the movie about that flight, was released last Friday, 1,670 days later.

It is, of course, not too soon to release a movie about the fourth plane to crash that day. United 93 is the first to be in theatres, but is the third movie about United 93; The Flight that Fought Back was a docudrama broadcast on the Discovery Channel on September 11, 2005, and Flight 93 aired on A&E on January 30, 2006.

The big question about the timing of United 93 is the age-old question that trumps morals and etiquette every time: money. Will it make money? Probably. Last weekend, its opening weekend, United 93 was in second place, ahead of Stick It and Silent Hill and just behind the Robin Williams-vehicle RV. World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Nicolas Cage as one of two New York cops rescued from the debris of 9/11, is coming to a screen near you on August 9. United 93 is in a group.

And it is a good film. Director and writer Paul Greengrass directed Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, both movies informed by high-tech and swift action; a good resume for a director of another action drama.

Except United 93 could be a stepping stone for Greengrass, a gateway to human-scale work with lots of face to face. United 93 is a quiet film. Its concern is the reactions of people in a time of tremendous stress. There’s no gore, no boom, no smash. More prayer and confusion than anything else.

United 93 begins early in the morning, the four hijackers praying in their hotel rooms. Passengers arrive at the airport. They board. The flight is delayed by half an hour because of routine traffic. We see the passengers and crew, but we never really learn their names. No gratuitous introductions for our benefit. Then, finally, take-off. Breakfast is served.

We see inside Boston, Cleveland, New York and NORAD air control centres, where confusion grows as flight after flight goes off the radar or stops communicating. It’s only when they put CNN up onto a large screen and see the second plane hit that the seriousness of the situation becomes obvious. Controllers, brass, military officers are in shock, staring at the screen. “This isn’t sim,” one says. “It’s real?” Chaos ensues. Can fighter planes be scrambled? Can they engage? Who can authorize this? What will the rules of engagement be? No one knows.

After the hijackers make themselves known on board United 93, passengers and crew make phone calls home and hear the news of the other crashed planes. They learn it’s not just a hijack. They leave messages of love and goodbye. Panic grows. Passengers attempt to storm the cockpit. The aircraft is in a mad, swaying descent. People are falling in the aisles, trying desperately to get over each other to the front of the plane. Through the cockpit window rural Pennsyl-vania spirals closer, first just green and then separate fields and then roads and farms and then one particular field and then….

The cast is mostly unknowns. JJ Johnson, a real airline captain, plays Jason Dahl, pilot of United 93. The only recognizable face is that of Jason Rothman, who played Andy in Copycat and has been on Law and Order.

The film’s propaganda isn’t over the top. The four hijackers are the most developed characters. We see them as individuals: the brash one, the smart one, the young one, the scared one. The passengers are just people. We see them close up, getting breakfast, making phone calls, plotting to storm the cabin, but few stand out. We don’t know who Todd Beamer is until he says his famous (and misquoted) line, “Roll it.” It’s far less overtly rah-rah-red-white-and-blue than the poster, which shows a plane heading over the Statue of Liberty towards Manhattan, where the Twin Towers send smoke into the blue air. United 93 would never have been there; it took off from New Jersey and headed west, inland, almost reaching Cleveland, Ohio, before it turned back east.

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