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Line in the sky: United 93 presents an incisive parable of citizen heroism in the face of foreign terror--and the federal government's failure to protect us from it.

This is how we want to envision the men and women of United Flight 93--their terror distilling into resolution, then being catalyzed into a counteroffensive that defeated the beasts in human form who intended to turn their airliner into a weapon of mass destruction.

We want to know that the passengers and flight attendants, strangers when they boarded the plane, coalesced into a citizen militia that mounted the only successful defense of our nation on that horrible September morning when the federal government utterly failed to protect our nation as the murderous harvest was brought in.

"No one is going to help us," explains United 93's depiction of passenger Todd Beamer. "We've got to do it ourselves." This assessment was presented starkly, unadorned by the cinematic emotional cues with which filmgoers are wearily familiar--the dramatic pauses, swelling soundtrack, artfully directed reaction shots, and so forth. The people presented in this film do not appear to be performing; they appear to be reacting to a horrible situation none of them could imagine, or fully understand.

Unembellished Drama

United 93 is neither an action film nor a documentary. Because we know how the story ends, the film's suspense comes not from anxiety over the outcome of the struggle, but instead from an intimate and relentless identification with the occupants of that doomed flight.

What little we learn of the individuals in the story is revealed indirectly. Before the crisis erupts, flight attendants and pilots speak fondly of babies left at home, and of anticipated family vacations. Some passengers are traveling with spouses. Anybody who is a frequent flier will identify with the various strategies employed by the passengers to deal with the tedium of the anticipated five-and-a-half-hour flight to San Francisco--reading; chatting up seatmates, whether they want to talk or not; knitting; working the New York Times crossword puzzle; sleeping. Even knowing, as we do, what is about to occur, we are still shocked when tedium gives way to terror.

Before their abominable plan is put into effect, the terrorists who seize the plane are similarly unremarkable, and utterly inconspicuous. Their bespectacled leader, who makes a fleeting pre-boarding phone call to bid farewell to a loved one, is allowed a few moments of human indecision, and it apparently falls to a more eager subordinate to begin the assault, in which a flight attendant and a first-class passenger are butchered. The pilots are also slaughtered after a flight attendant is forced to open the cockpit door.

Once in charge of the cockpit, however, the leader becomes a pillar of dreadful resolve, icily putting the 757 into a steep dive before leveling off at a shockingly low altitude in order to follow the landscape to the intended target--the U.S. Capitol Building.

We know enough about several of the participants to recognize that the version of events related by the film is credible. Mark Bingham is briefly shown explaining his love for, and involvement in, a rugby league; this sets up the film's climax, in which the would-be victims form a rugby-style scrum behind a food service cart as they attack the hijackers in an attempt to retake the cockpit.

As the passengers and attendants huddle in the back of the plane, we briefly hear Jeremy Glick describe his contribution to the plan. Referring to the hijacker who had strapped on what was believed to be a phony bomb, Glick explains that he'll rush the terrorist and "break his arm." Most of the audience probably doesn't know that Glick, an NCAA Judo champion, was quite capable of doing just that. And as the battle for the cockpit erupts, we see fleeting glimpses of Glick resolutely incapacitating a terrorist with a hadaka jime or "rear naked choke."

Todd Beamer, the Christian businessman identified in the pieced-together account of Flight 93 as the de facto leader of the counterattack, is portrayed as an ordinary man, exceptional only for his composure and sobriety. It is Beamer to whom the now familiar exhortation "Let's roll!" is attributed. In the film, however, Beamer is not bellowing a rallying cry but expressing impatience--which is less cathartic, to be sure, but very plausible.

Because it resonates with the best elements of our national character, we believe, and want to know, that this tiny group of citizens, randomly brought together on that flight, quickly and accurately evaluated their predicament, and took decisive action--even as our "national security" bureaucracy was paralyzed by indecision and rendered useless by its sheer, redundant bulk.

We want--no, we need--to know that United 93 was more than a pointless tragedy, that it was an airborne Alamo or Thermopylae. It is important for us to envision the Americans aboard that flight, after learning of the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, acting with stoic resolve. We need to imagine them drawing a line in the sky that says: Evil stops here.

But the cold fact is that we do not know exactly what happened--and this film cannot tell us. What British writer/director Paul Greengrass has brought to life is a credible depiction of one possible version of what happened on Flight 93. Brief airphone and cellphone conversations with people on the ground, coupled with largely impressionistic flight recorder data, offered Greengrass a schematic of the hijacking and the battle to reclaim the cockpit--but the story he has created is his own. What really happened on the flight--the horror, the anger and regret, the doomed courage of those who fought back--is known only to God.

Acting Naturally

It is a tribute to the craft and insight of Paul Greengrass that when the passengers and flight attendants strike back, the audience actually feels as if it is enlisted in that struggle. The film's dialogue is utterly unaffected and naturalistic; it's likely that much of it was the product of multiple takes from an improvised outline. The events unfold in real time. The virtuosic use of archival footage, authentic locations, and a flight simulator combine to provide almost unmatched realism.

Some of the key roles--such as Ben Sliney, head of the FAA's national command center--were capably performed by the actual people, none of whom had any previous acting experience. Mr. Sliney, in particular, is astonishingly good. Without a trace of self-awareness, he projects the calm competence of a professional, and the affable charisma of a natural leader and the mounting horrors of that dreadful morning are memorably reflected in his face as the story unfolds. It can be said without risk of hyperbole that Sliney's performance is Oscar-worthy. Some may protest that he is only playing himself, without appreciating how difficult that unique acting challenge can be.

It is a category error to refer to United 93 as a work of entertainment. While the craftsmanship displayed by Greengrass and his performers is unsurpassed, the film is not a diversion. Nor is it a political polemic, partisan or otherwise.

Speaking to a reporter shortly after United 93's debut, President Bush described the film as a depiction of "our first successful counter-attack in our homeland in this new global war, World War III." Although Greengrass takes scrupulous care to avoid politicizing his material, the film he has made is not a recruitment film for World War III, but rather a chronicle of the heroism of common citizens in the face of what was, at the very best, a monumental failure by the government to carry out the most important task delegated to it: protecting our homeland from foreign attack.
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Article Details
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 29, 2006
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