When discussing any film based on a real-life tragedy – particularly one in living memory – critique needs to be approached from two distinct and yet related angles. Firstly, does the work succeed as a film and secondly, does the work succeed in its portrayal of the events in an honest and respectful fashion? As much as one may try to evaluate these issues separately, they are inextricably linked, at a certain level. It is through realism that a film may successfully engage the audience and provide them with insight. This analysis will attempt to consider both aspects as well as the points at which they intersect.
For many of us, the images of September 11, 2001 remain a stark and traumatic part of our popular consciousness. Two towers standing, enshrouded in smoke. The roar of a collapsing skyscraper, previously unheard and now unmistakably and depressingly identifiable. The news of the attack on the Pentagon and the realisation throughout the morning that the United States was suddenly at war with – well, someone. Such images are still disturbing to watch, despite the subsequent politicisation and ensuing controversial wars. And yet, in September of this year, we will have the first generation of teenagers who were not even born when 9/11 occurred. It seems therefore an appropriate time to evaluate the cultural legacy of that day as it is expressed and passed on through cinema. Specifically, Paul Greengrass’ 2006 film United 93.
Paul Greengrass is a director who likes to employ a sense of immediacy in his work. His films are frequently described as visceral; matter-of-fact, in-the-moment experiences which serve to convey a feeling of raw subjective experience from the point of view of the characters, rather than the grand perspective afforded by the omniscient narrator of a traditional story.
This is strongly demonstrated in the screenplay of United 93. In contrast to other disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic, we know little-to-nothing about the individuals in this story, aside from their actions. Indeed, many of the characters are never mentioned by name and cliches seem carefully avoided (with the unfortunate exception of the panicky German character). The majority of dialogue is essentially presented verbatim, taken from internal communications recordings, the black box of United 93 and the heartbreaking recollections of the witnesses and families of the victims. Many key people involved in the events of that day play themselves in the film.
Although most of us are well aware of what unfolded on that day before us on the television, here Greengrass is interested in delving behind the scenes, providing a painful and timeless account of the confusion and turmoil which is hard to fully appreciate with the benefit of retrospection.
The four key locations through which the film takes place are the Air Traffic Controllers offices, the FAA headquarters, the base of operations for the North East Air Defense Sector (NEADS), and the doomed flight United 93.
The film’s portrayal of 9/11 is handled with remarkable sensitivity. We only see the World Trade Center in a few brief shots, most of which are taken directly from CNN footage of the day. There are no low-angle hero shots, no boldly declared catchphrases, no heroically swelling music. There is also an absence of politics. We are not inundated with American flags or patriotic speeches – in fact we do not see a single politician in the entire film. Afghanistan, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are not mentioned. Everything is presented as-is; or rather, how it was on that day. Thus the only perspective is neither historical nor political but simply that all involved will share in some kind of tragedy by the end of the day. Even the hijackers themselves are neither demonised nor excessively humanised – they are simply agents in this event with their own motivations. Greengrass used a similar technique in Captain Phillips (2013) with the character of Barkhad Abdi, the Somali pirate. Abdi was presented in that film as someone who believed in the righteousness of their actions, behaving almost out of deterministic compulsion rather than malice; the film was so deep in the moment it did not attempt to cast such judgements. It should be noted that it is a remarkable thing to pull off such a fine balancing act between reductionism and empathy. Aside from the excellent Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), few films have managed to execute an honest portrayal of real human beings who for whatever reason have committed the most unspeakable evils without either casting them as cartoon villains or inadvertently provoking the audience to sympathise with their motivations.
In this way, Greengrass has achieved what few have, and has avoided what the premature critics feared – the calls of “too soon” and any assumption of impropriety are swept aside as he presents a living, breathing document in real-time; a preservation of the raw emotion and experience of that day. As a piece of history, United 93 is both bold and sensitive, exercising restraint without compromising honesty.
As a film, United 93 is astoundingly successful, albeit horrifyingly depressing. At its core, this is a fatalist story about entropy; the inevitable decay of order into chaos as systems of control collapse. At the outset of the story, each of the actors are an organised unit, ordered by systemic norms and command structures. The NEADS personnel execute their orders in the proper mechanical military fashion, maintaining their decorum and procedure as they perform a training exercise and then learn of the first hijacking. At FAA headquarters, National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) goes about his business receiving routine briefings on ground delay times and flight statuses. At the ATC centres, controllers calmly issue terse guidance to the flights in their jurisdiction. The passengers of United 93 board the plane in an orderly fashion and pay mild attention as the flight attendants rehearse the emergency procedures they have done so many countless times. Even the hijackers begin the day with the standard prayer ritual practiced by Muslims around the world. As the day begins, everything is ordered and unfolding as per the scripts and schema we are so accustomed to in our daily lives.
Thirty-five minutes into the film, American Airlines flight 11 disappears below radar coverage. Newscasters begin announcing the collision of an aircraft with the north tower of the World Trade Center. It is throughout the next seventy minutes that we will see – in basically real-time – these systems of control break down.
As the NEADS begins to learn that a plane has flown into World Trade Center 1, the military procedures are out the window. Indeed, at that point in time there were no contingencies for a plane intentionally downing itself as a weapon of mass destruction. They watch as the second plane hits, realising the country is under attack and yet they do not know their enemy, much less whether there are more targets or what they may be. At any rate, we learn there are only four fighter jets guarding the entire Eastern coast of the United States – two of which are unarmed. When the military learns a plane is headed for Washington they scramble fighters only to have them accidentally fly out over the Atlantic Ocean. Regardless, nobody can get in contact with the Commander in Chief to secure shoot-down authority. The chain of command in the most rigidly disciplined organisation in the nation has decayed into utter disarray.
At the FAA headquarters, staff scramble to identify potentially suspect flights. They receive and issue false and contradictory information, mistaking a Delta Airlines flight for a hijack and believing flights that have gone down are still in the air and flights that are in the air have gone down. The system deteriorates as first local airports are shut down in a futile attempt to prevent further attacks (the remaining hijacked planes are all airborne by this point), then nationwide takeoffs are banned before finally all US airspace is closed. The Air Traffic Controllers struggle to track planes who have switched off their transponders or gone below radar coverage.
Piece by piece, the power structures of the United States fall into disorder. It is in the final act that we experience this on a more personal level. Hijackers take control of United 93. The frightened passengers use phones to try to call for help, only to learn that their situation is far more dire than they could have feared. Although there is realism in the anonymity portrayed between the passengers, there is also a tense, sad and engaging intimacy in the bond that forms between them – we do not get to know their back-stories or individual personality traits, and yet in these last moments we are given a profound glimpse at their shared character in banding together to make a stand, to possibly restore order and hope. Unfortunately, we know that United 93 too will inevitably succumb to total chaos as both the passengers’ plan to retake the plane and the terrorists’ plan to crash it into a building are destroyed. There is no order left on this morning.
So it is for United 93. As with the most precious cinematic recantations of history like The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda, Greengrass’ film succeeds as an exercise in tension and – yes – visceral emotion. For those teenagers who were not in this world on that day, to watch this movie is to experience what we experienced as a society. Tension, suspense, anguish, anger, confusion. These are just words; to watch United 93 is to experience it, and most importantly, to remember it.
The last audible line of the film is “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic: “God is the greatest”) screamed repeatedly by the pilot as he aims the plane at the earth below. Epicurus challenged belief in God in with Problem of Evil, part of which asks is God willing to prevent evil but unable? Perhaps that is the point. In the moments like that September morning, once the descent into disorder begins, each and every agent is stuck on an inevitable path towards chaos; one which even the highest source of order cannot escape.