A movie about the tragic events of September 11, 2001 plays, for the first time ever, in the movie theaters. The film "United 93," by director Paul Greengrass, focuses on the last minutes of the lives of the 40 passengers on-board one of four doomed flights, United 93. The gritty re-enactment of what happened to it has raised the question of whether a movie like this should have been made.
Radio Announcer: "We're going to go over to Chris and talk about the forecast. It was a very good one."
On that beautiful morning of September 11, 2001 no American could have imagined that this day would be so different.
The Captain speaks over the loud speaker saying, "We've reached our cruise altitude of 35.000 feet and I'm going to turn the 'fasten seat belts' sign off..."
There is nothing overstated about this or any scene in "United 93." The disbelief, the fear, the horror -- key elements in successful action films -- are too real, too painful, in this movie to be escapist.
But, escape was not in Paul Greengrass's mind when he was making this movie. "Personally, I think so much of what has happened in our world today, goes back to 9/11 -- that we have to be prepared to go and look at that event, and look at it with a degree of reality. You can't airbrush the terror and the fear of 9/11. We have to face up to it."
Paul Greengrass focuses on the events of the ill-fated United 93 because, as he says, it highlights human bravery and human weakness.
Over the speaker the pilot says, "It looks like we've run into a bit of rush hour traffic. Unfortunately there is going to be a 30 minute delay."
Mr. Greengrass says timing was everything. "The extraordinary thing about flight 93 is that it was very late. By the time the flight 93 took off, the other airplanes were reaching their targets."
And when the hijackers take over, the camera captures people's confusion, their disbelief and terror. Some sneak calls to their relatives and learn that the hijacking is part of a wider terrorist attack. They realize that their plane will also be used as a weapon against a target in Washington.
Again, Greengrass. " At that moment those people on board that aircraft could see exactly what they were dealing with and what they were faced with was a dreadful choice, but with immense courage that group of people weighed those choices, made a decision, and acted upon it."
While the drama unfolds in the air, Greengrass' camera looks critically at the bureaucracy and the lack of coordination on the ground.
A military officer says, "Four planes. That's all I got. I cannot defend the whole eastern seaboard with four planes. What you've got?"
A female officer remarks, “Washington is on the phone. They say they have got American 77 it just went missing out of Dulles. It was supposed to go to LAX."
A male officer replies, "This is another one?"
Ben Sliney was the FAA National Operations Manager that day and has a cameo role in the movie.
"Listen. I'm not taking any more chances. We've got stuff flying around we do have not control over. And I don't want a board full of these planes hitting any of these buildings on the East Coast. This is a national emergency. Everyone lands regardless of destination," he says in the re-creation.
In an interview, Mr. Sliney says, "The irony, of course, was they first wanted to know who gave me the authority to do that, and then ten minutes later, after 93 had crashed, which they thought had taken off much later than it did, they wanted to know why I hadn't done it sooner."
Using a handheld camera, Greengrass takes close-up, unsteady shots creating the effect of a docudrama, full of stress and tension. Its effect is visceral.
Some who appear in the movie took part in the actual events of that day. Others, are victims' relatives. The effect is so realistic that many have questioned whether audiences are ready to watch a film like this.
Psychologist Jeffrey Jay says that 9/11 still strikes too close to Americans' hearts. "We still carry a piece of that fear and the whole country is still involved in a war, in trials. We're still trying to figure out what all this means. It began in 2001 but, it's not that long ago and we're still trying to figure this out. So, we're all participants in a different way.
Greengrass says retelling the story has been a delicate undertaking. "I don't think you ever know when is the right time to make a film like this. And that's why you have to start by going to see the families. They clearly feel that it's the right time. So, we should listen. We should listen to what their story is"
In the film, the voices of the passengers are heard. "We have to do something. They are not going to land this plane. They are not going to take us back to the airport. Is there any other option we have? We are gonna die … we're gonna die..."
Critics have hailed this film as a truthful and emotional account. Director Greengrass approaches the subject with respect and sensitivity. His movie is a tribute to the victims of 9/11 …and to those who will be influenced forever by the events of September 11th.