United 93

May 13, 2006

This afternoon I saw United 93 with Marlene and Nick. She said it was an early Mother’s Day present since Nick left to go back to Birmingham this evening. We went to the 1:20 PM showing and there were perhaps 15 people in a 400-seat theater.
The movie begins with no preamble, no narration, no words on the screen to set the scene. We see one of the hijackers reciting the Koran in his hotel room. Immediately there is an aerial view of taxis taking passengers to the airport. The thought comes to mind how beautiful, how peaceful, how normal everything seemed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Even the weather cooperated, with clear skies across most of the country. We catch glimpses of the new man taking over at the one of the tracking centers. Inside another command center, they are preparing for some sort of military exercise. Meanwhile the pilots chat as they board the airplane while the flight attendants prepare for the cross-country flight to San Francisco. You watch as the hijackers pass through security with knives undetected. Someone made a deliberate (and wise) decision to focus on the five men who will take over the plane. Most of us know about Todd Beamer and the others who fought back, but we know very little about the hijackers. The movie offers Arabic subtitles here and there, but mostly we are left to imagine what their shouted words mean.
In the best sense of the term, the movie is apolitical. No time is spent developing where these men came from or why they did what they did. You never hear of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. This film is about what happened inside flight United 93. It’s also about the reaction of the air traffic controllers and the military commanders who struggled desperately, and disjointedly, to make sense of a coordinated series of hijacked planes attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The movie reminds us how utterly unprepared we were. At one point during the chaos on the ground, a flight controller shouts out, “We’re at war with someone,” but exactly who remains a mystery, at least on that fateful day.
Once the plane takes off, the movie lasts exactly as long as the flight did. There is graphic bloodshed, but it is not gratuitous. Slowly, ever so slowly, through phone calls made by frightened passengers, word filters through the plane that the World Trade Center has been hit. Confusion reigns as the pilot changes directions and flies toward Washington. The movie makes clear that the passengers had only fragmentary knowledge of the bigger picture. Finally a man blurts out, “No one is going to help us. We have to do it ourselves.” The hijackers intended to turn the airplane into a flying torpedo that would destroy the U.S. Capitol. It meant that no matter what happened, the passengers would never get off the plane alive. They were already as good as dead. What do you do in a situaiton like that? Quickly they improvise a plan. They will rush the front, subdue the hijackers, and try to land the plane themselves. There are no patriotic speeches. These were ordinary men and women, thrown together in a crisis, who resolved, finally, to take action. They would not die without fighting back.
Courage is fear that has said its prayers. The movie shows passengers praying, and we hear Todd Beamer reciting the Lord’s Prayer. As Lisa Beamer would say a few days later, “Doing what you know ought to be done, without regard to the results, this is the true test of character.”
The end comes quickly and violently. Todd Beamer says, “Let’s roll.” Suddenly they storm the front, disarming one hijacker and then another. In the last seconds of the film, using a beverage cart as a battering ram, they break through the cockpit door. Hands reach for the hijacker flying the plane. One passenger seems to make it into the pilot’s seat. Screams, chaos, yelling, grabbing for controls, the plane flips upside down, then it plunges downward, hurtling toward the peaceful Pennsylvania countryside.
The film ends just before impact. Everyone aboard United 93 perished that day.
Every American should see this film. It leaves you with a sense of sorrow, anger, and above all, pride in those brave men and women who died as heroes because in a desperate moment, against all odds, they fought back.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?