United 93 and Flight 93 (2006)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 0; L – 4 ; S/N – 5. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority- to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Luke 12:4-7

United 93 and Flight 93

The same weekend that director/writer Paul Greengrass’ film debuted in the theaters, the Arts & Entertainment Channel rebroadcast its cable version of the same events, Flight 93. I was much moved by the latter when I first saw it a few months earlier, but now realize how weak it is in comparison to the British filmmaker’s version. Mr. Greenglass’ use of the handheld camera with its quick cuts and seemingly random sweeps of a scene makes us feel a part of the action, whereas the cable film with its smooth shots, many of them medium rather than United’s many close-ups, makes us seem like detached spectators. There could be no truer, heart-felt memorial to the brave passengers and crew of Flight 93 than this superb theatrical film.

The film begins with a dark screen as we hear Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla) praying for his group’s mission. Thus at the outset we are reminded of the power and the danger of religious belief. The hijackers are never shown as heinous villains, but rather, as a committed, sometimes nervous team that carry out their plan in a methodical fashion. Even as Flight 93 taxies onto the Newark runway, waiting for clearance to take off for San Francisco, we are taken to various flight control rooms where attendants are worried about a flight from Boston that is off course. Using real flight controllers, the filmmakers create total believability. Nor is there ever anything revealed that was not known at the time of the action.

Federal Aviation Administration operations manager Ben Sliney, playing himself, tries to figure out what is happening, especially when, as we watch, a second plane veers off course. Flight 93 at last takes off, and the flight attendants go about offering the passengers hot breakfasts. The young terrorists, sitting apart in different seat, turn down the food. The film jumps back and forth between the control centers and the plane. The latter is just a few minutes into its flight when the first hijacked airliner from Boston disappears from the controllers’ screens. No one is certain what has happened, even when word comes that a plane—the first report is that it is a small one—has slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Those watching television soon learn where the other off-course flight from Boston is. The controllers watch in horror as a plane strikes the other WTC tower, and a billowing orange explosion erupts from the opposite side. Now they know that the first hit was no accident.

Ben Sliney calls for the military liaison, but the officer is unable to reach his higher ups, nor does the Vice President’s office respond (as well as the President’s). No one knows quite what to do, and even when two military jets are scrambled, they are unarmed. There is talk as to whether they should ram any other airliners that are high jacked. It is not much later that the third plane deals a destructive blow to the Pentagon in Washington. Fearing that there could be more highjacked planes, Ben Sliney makes the awesome decision to ground all commercial flights and to turn back any flights from other countries.

Suspense mounts as we see the passengers roaming about, eating their breakfasts and such on Flight 93. The filmmakers refuse to go the route of providing back-stories for the various characters, as in most disaster films. We know no more about the people on the flight than we would have we been aboard. We do know the general outline of the story and its outcome, so the suspense lies in waiting for the terrorists to spring into action. Each time one of the foreigners gets up or looks around we wonder, “Will this be it?” Finally they do, taking command before some of the passengers even know something is wrong. Two of the terrorists kill the pilot and copilot, taking control of the plane and turning it around to head east. They tell the passengers that they are heading back to the airport.

When the passengers are herded toward the back of the plane, some trying to tend to the man who had been stabbed during the initial melee, several get out their cell phones and contact loved ones. It is then that they learn the awful truth about the other three hijacked planes. They become aware that a similar fate awaits them. There is no one hero gathering everyone together and declaring, “Here’s the plan,” while sketching out a diagram of the plane. Instead there is confusion, terrible fear, many phone calls to loved ones, and an eventual agreeing that they must do something to prevent more destruction. Knowing that they will probably not survive, the brave passengers and flight attendants decide to act, rather than to sit passively and await their fate. It was a courageous group decision, one that deserves to be memorialized and honored, and that is exactly what this film does. It will be almost two hours of difficult watching, and yet it is imminently worthwhile.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) Did you recognize any of the actors in either film? How was this a good decision not to use a big name cast?

2) How did the shaky shots by the hand-held camera affect you? Annoying at first? How did this technique take away the usual feeling that you are watching a movie? Did you feel more a part of the action?

3) What were you doing on 9-11? How did the events of the day affect you or change your schedule?

4) At the beginning and later one of the terrorist pilots pray. What must their view of God be that they think their acts have divine approval? Have their been similar uses of Christianity? What can prevent Christianity and Islam from being so used by fanatics?

5) The film makes no political statements or claims, but what do you believe motivates some Middle Easterners to strike at the United States? Is it, as some Americans believe, that they just hate our democracy and us? Or do you think there are other reasons for their campaigns of terror?

6) What did you notice that most of the last phone calls to loved ones had in common? How did the exclamations of love reveal that most of the passengers were not thinking primarily of themselves?

6) Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pa., about 150 miles short of its apparent destination, Washington, D.C. What do you think of the efforts to raise so much money to build a memorial in the field? Money well spent? The film ends with a shot of fire trucks, police officers and rescue workers around the large crater caused by the plane’s impact, then this is morphed into an empty field surrounding the crater, and then by the grass grown over what must have been soil filling in the hole, though you can see the faint circle of the rim still. What does this closing sequence say to you?