I guess we can all remember what we were doing on that day five years ago. Now we have Paul Greengrass's explosive movie United 93 to yet again remind us of how that fateful day played out. Set up very much like a documentary, and taking place in real time, United 93 puts you right there onboard United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane on Sept. 11, 2001, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, just short of its intended target - probably the Capitol Building.
For the crew, the passengers, and indeed the air traffic controllers in both Boston and New York, the day started like any other. In New York it was a beautiful summer's morning as the intended passengers for United Flight 93 arrived at La Guardia, ready to fly home to San Francisco. The pilots make small talk, while the air stewards' joke about personal stuff. People are seen working on laptops and talking into cell phones as the plane is loaded up with jet fuel. Mark Bingham arrives late just as the plane is finishing boarding.
Little do the passengers know that sitting amongst them at the departure gate are four young men of Middle Eastern descent who intent to hijack the plane and use it as a suicide missile. Unfortunately, due to heavy traffic the flight is late leaving, but once it's in the air, the hijackers seem to breath a sigh of relief. We watch as they wait and wait for it seems like forever to make their move, and then, once they do, we also observe as the passengers realize the World Trade Center has been hit after talking with their loved ones on the ground.
Meanwhile, during these breathless, heart-stopping moments, the film cuts away to the desperation and confusion in airport control towers, the FAA's overwhelmed operations command center in Herndon, Va., and the military's unprepared operations center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. One of the air traffic controllers in Boston suddenly realizes that American Airlines flight 11 has been hijacked after he hears what he thinks is someone speaking Arabic.
His boss acts in disbelief as technicians try frantically to figure out what's happening, and only slowly does the full scale of the morning's pandemonium become viciously, dreadfully clear. For all their monitors and electronic equipment, there is a horrific, low-tech moment when controllers at Newark Airport get a perfect view across the Hudson of the second plane hitting a World Trade Center tower. No one can even speak; everyone is so numb with disbelief at what they are seeing.
Using tight jump cut editing, Greengrass skips backwards and forwards between the chaos and lack of communication between the FAA and NORAD and the panicked and then determined passengers who decide to do something about the situation. Obviously, we will never know exactly what happened on the flight. There is evidence from phone calls made from the plane and that's where it ends, but at least we know something monumental took place. Greengrass does a superb job of showing us what very likely did happen.
United 93 is just so deeply rooted in reality - no A-list stars here, with the actors largely unknowns. This adds to the authenticity of events as they transpire. Any conversations are overheard in fragmented snippets, and the actors often trip over their pointedly inarticulate dialogue with unrehearsed freshness. You never feel like you're watching a movie, rather you feel like you're just there. The film is indeed a masterpiece and a fitting testament to these ordinary heroes whose defiance and willingness to stand-up to the terrorists is made so palpable. Mike Leonard September 06.