Greengrass’ movie is flawlessly made, but forgets something important
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
When I first heard about United flight 93 in the aftermath of 9/11, I imagined the passengers breaking down the door to the cockpit, wrestling for control of the plane, but failing valiantly as the terrorist at the controls manages to crash the plane into the ground. I imagined a lot of sweaty, terrified faces, and I imagined a lot of Islamic prayers being screamed over the struggle.
That’s exactly what Paul Greengrass’ flawlessly executed new movie United 93 gives us.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of the flight recorder for flight 93 (source: CNN.com):
The passengers then make another run for the cockpit.
“In the cockpit! If we don’t, we’ll die,” a male passenger says.
Seconds later, another passenger yells, “Roll it,” a possible reference to a drink cart passengers might have used to ram the cockpit door.
“Cut off the oxygen,” one of the hijackers says in Arabic, repeating the order three times.
Jarrah resumes pitching the plane from side to side.
Inside the cockpit the hijackers decide to crash the plane. “Pull it down. Pull it down,” an Arabic voice says. The jetliner heads downward and rolls upside down.
“Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest!” one of the hijackers shouts over and over.
The tape ends at 10:03 as the plane nose-dives at an estimated 580 mph into a reclaimed coal field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from Pittsburgh.
That’s a big motherfucking difference, ladies and gentlemen. I can even remember learning in the weeks and months after 9/11 that the passengers on flight 93 didn’t make it into the cockpit; that they fought back, and that the terrorists crashed the plane before the passengers could retake it. The flight recorder confirmed that.
Why am I so fucking pissed?
Here’s why: Didn’t Greengrass do all kinds of research for this movie? Sure, he’s dealing with a story where all the central characters died, but he still had a lot to go on – interviews with the family members, interviews with military and flight control officials, phone calls, phone messages. The movie’s Web site lists all kinds of research done and documents read; didn’t they have access to the flight recorder?
Here I concede that they very well might not have had access to the flight recorder or its contents. The transcript I quoted above was released a scant two weeks ago during the trial of Al Quaeda terrorist and whack-job Zacarias Moussaoui. If they didn’t have access to the flight recorder, if they didn’t know what happened in the flight’s final minutes – if they just had to make their best guess – then what did I expect? Would I really expect Greengrass to reshoot the ending two weeks before the movie comes out?
No, of course not.
Maybe they could have put a fact-clarifying disclaimer at the movie’s end, but that’s not the point, and that’s not why I’m so pissed. I’m pissed for two reasons:
1. Simple honesty. In a movie shot like a documentary – by now a hallmark of Greengrass’ gritty, verite style – and that features the national air traffic controller as himself, I expect them to get right the one detail we had solid information on. Yes, yes, we can only postulate what happened on the flight. We can only guess that passenger Jeremy Glick (one of the biggest, strongest guys on the plane) broke the neck of one of the terrorists. I remain dubious of such storytelling, but I can live with it when handled as well as Greengrass handles it. But when it comes to the finale, the climax, the ultimate resolution, we can expect the filmmakers to accurately show what happened, and we fully reserve the right to get pissed when they don’t.
2. More important: I shudder to think of the possibility that the filmmakers omitted the terrorists’ calm, calculating final lines – “Pull it down. Pull it down” – and added the passengers’ entrance into the cockpit in order to heighten their heroism. I further shudder to think that the filmmakers replaced the terrorists’ final calm with the gog-eyed panic we see in the movie to heighten the passengers’ heroism.
And let me stress: The passengers on flight 93 don’t need any help or heightening or fucking dramatic amplification to show, remind or illustrate that what they did was heroic.
Furthermore, to show the terrorists calmly executing their plans, as the flight recorder indicates, does not glorify fanatical Islam or the terrorists – and it wouldn’t diminish the passengers’ heroism. Not one nanogram.
That said …
With this movie and Bloody Sunday, Greengrass has established himself as a master of gripping, faux-documentary, non-fictional moviemaking. Greengrass well understands the grand old Hitchcock adage that a bomb going off is surprising, but if you show the audience a ticking bomb hidden in a room with people, that’s suspense, and you can then show anything, no matter how mundane or boring, and the audience will watch it
Greengrass does better than that, though, by expertly intercutting between the interior of flight 93 (bored passengers, nervous terrorists), and various air traffic control centers around the country, where we watch the coordinated attacks unfold. By the time we get to the actual hijacking, though, Greengrass wisely ignores the flight-control stuff and focuses on the passengers. It’s all perfectly executed and perfectly acted – and I’m grateful that a director of Greengrass’ skill was at the helm. A thousand other, lesser directors would have drug out the flight’s final moments in dopey slow-motion or given the now-legendary line “Let’s roll” a pedestal. Greengrass does none of these things. “Let’s roll” is heard, actually, in the middle of a longer line (“C’mon, let’s go, let’s roll, let’s do it”), and the final moments, like the rest of the movie, play out in real time.
I only wish that, if we’re going to have this movie, that the final moments had played out as they actually happened. And barring that, I simply want to remind everyone who reads this that the passengers did not get into the cockpit, that the terrorists calmly crashed the plane and killed everyone on board – and that the passengers are heroes of the highest order.
Heroes don’t need help being heroes. They simply are.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.