United 93

Before tonight, the most emotionally engaging moment I can remember experiencing in a cinema was at the end of Return of the King. The finale was so masterfully woven, the characters so important to me, that it completely drew me in. Tonight I saw United 93, and I honestly hope I never see anything like it again.

Over the last month or two I’d mentioned that I wanted to see United 93, and a couple of people immediately said ‘too soon’. I wanted to know why, to know what reasoning had lead to them to this conclusion, but I could only ever get that: it’s too soon. I didn’t think it was too soon, but, still, when I first heard of the film’s existence I was hesitant. A dramatisation of those events could easily be mishandled. It would be repulsive to exploit that day to make money. But then I heard more about the film, and found that the families of the victims had given their consent. I made an exception from my policy of not reading reviews, and everything I heard suggested that it was a film worth seeing, so I did.

I think some of the film’s power comes from what it wasn’t. The events were reconstructed meticulously from available evidence. There was no patriotic message, nor use of the phrase ‘foreign policy’. It was straight storytelling, following the people on United 93, air-traffic controllers, high-ranking air-traffic coordinators, and low-to-mid-level military personnel. And that was it – nobody played GWB, there was nothing more than distance shots of the towers, and there were no shots of relatives on the other end of goodbye phone calls.

Obviously I don’t have the experience to say whether the situation was portrayed realistically, but it certainly seemed reasonable. I know that many of the ground staff played themselves. I assume that the breakdowns in communication were genuine, but nobody was made a scapegoat. The controller of all US airspace reacted to circumstance as best he could. He wasn’t a perfect, always in-control leader, but was experienced enough not to lose his head. The frustration of the military commander as he tried to find available fighter jets was just that – frustration directed at the broken communication, rather than anybody specific.

The events on board flight 93 seemed reasonable. As I said, much of it was pieced together from phone calls, flight data etc. Even some of the interaction between passengers was based on evidence: somebody called home to say that a woman had handed her a mobile phone, telling her to call her loved ones. As I understand it, the actors on the plane researched the individual they were playing, and then improvised around the framework of known events. The terrorists were neither sympathetic nor heroic – they simply did what they did. Although it’s clearly impossible to know how you’d react in such a situation, there were no moments that rang hollow. Before they knew of the other attacks, one passenger wanted to calm down and let the terrorists do what they wanted since hijackings had almost always been resolved peacefully up to that point. He’s since had to defend being ‘an appeaser’ (which is ridiculous, imho), and I couldn’t help thinking that, hell, that could well have been me.

The phone calls were horrific. I was quickly in tears. The usual safety net of ‘this isn’t real’ obviously didn’t apply, but I kept finding myself trying to step back a little. I was searching for a way to make it less unpleasant, but came up empty. During the final moments, as the passengers rebelled and stormed the aisle towards the cockpit, I found that I had crept physically back into my seat, my arms crossed and my hands in fists. I knew what was coming, but a part of my brain still desperately wanted to see the plane beginning to level off. I was essentially hoping that Superman to save the day. I can’t help but wonder if this is the real root of all conspiracy theories.

No fiction could resonate more, and it’s hard to think of real-life stories that could have the same impact, here and now. Oliver Stone has a twin towers movie coming out this autumn. It’s worrying. If he tries to put any kind of spin on events, and if he dares mention the word ‘conspiracy’, he’ll incur the justified wrath of a huge number of people – me included. But a similar film covering the firefighters who ran into the towers would be well worth making, imho (although there is a real-life documentary, filmed on the day itself, that arguably has this covered).

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. I found it to be a phenomenally powerful film. It’s undeniably upsetting, but, if you can, do see it. There’s no moral, it simply tells a story, and one I think well worth telling. Some people wanted to kill a planeload of people; others ran down an aisle towards men who wielded knives and bombs. If anything, it says this: look at what we’re capable of.