Political Film Society - Newsletter #252 - May 15, 2006

May 15, 2006


United 93United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, was controversial even before its release for various reasons, especially the possibility that something inappropriate would disgrace those who died on 9/11. As is well known, four airplanes were hijacked on that day, but only United 93 failed to reach a target, instead crashing into a Pennsylvania countryside after some sort of scuffle on board. The film, though based in part on the book by Jere Longman, is a docudrama with regard only to events outside the airplane, namely, the three crashes and the reactions of various government agencies to the events of the day. Most attention is directed toward the Federal Aviation Agency's response, notably a control room in Herndon, Virginia, where flights across the country are monitored. Some time elapses between the initial indication that the first airplane is on a strange course and the conclusion that a hijacking is in progress, so no immediate action is taken. After FAA is informed that a small airplane has crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, the control room turns on CNN to see that the hole is too gaping for anything but a larger airplane. Although FAA more quickly concludes that the three other airplanes on unusual courses also have been hijacked, they seek contact with the Air Force after the second crash to take military action. Meanwhile, the Northeast Air Defense Sector command near New York at first lacks rules of engagement to cover the situation, then requests permission to shoot down the third plane, and finally two planes are launched into the Atlantic (!) without ammunition. Unlike Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (2004), there is no explanation in United 93 of the fact that the Air Force requests orders from President George W. Bush but receives none, and a title at the end indicates that Air Force jets were one hundred miles from United 93 at the time of the crash. An obvious question is whether the government agencies ever coordinated a mock hijacking exercise before, as a central point of the docudrama is that they acted slowly, and let down the country.

Finally, the FAA officer in charge, Ben Sliney (playing himself), grounds all aircraft throughout the United States so that any further hijacking attempts will be easier to spot. Meanwhile, the account of what happened aboard United 93 provides an opportunity to portray American heroism. The action begins with the boarding of four hijackers, at least one of which has a small knife that is undetected by preboarding X-ray equipment. They speak Arabic but do not closely resemble one another physically. Two sit together, the other two are seated separately, all in First Class. They refuse food and beverages and await a signal from the leader, Ziad Jarrah (played by Kahlid Abdalla), who seems nervous. Their reasons for the hijacking are unclear, but they pray to Allah at various times. Their objective is the Capitol building, that is, the seat of Congress. When the signal is given, the most muscular one grabs a stewardess, threatens her life if she does not open the door to the cockpit, and she complies. Thereafter, the hijackers kill the pilot and copilot, and the leader takes over as pilot, with the muscle-enforcer sitting in the copilot seat. One of the other two hijackers exposes an apparent bomb that he assembles in the toilet, and the other orders passengers to stay seated. Those in tourist class are not fully aware of what has happened until a stewardess informs them that the pilot and copilot are lying on the floor near the First Class galley. Terror grips the passengers, but the women almost uniformly get emotional, while many of the men react by using telephones to report events to interlocutors on the ground, who in turn inform them of the World Trade Center crashes. (Their interlocutors on the ground were interviewed to provide as much accuracy to the airborne events as possible.) With knowledge that a retired pilot is on board, several men hatch a plot. After they ask stewardesses to bring knives, fire extinguishers, and other heavy objects, they rush the two who are threatening to set off the bomb, which they correctly surmise is phony. After the two are out of action, they use serving trays to ram the cockpit door, during which time the nervous pilot is unable to maintain control, and the crash occurs. Titles at the end dedicate the film to those who lost their lives on 9/11. MH