Humans are drawn to looking at the unwatchable as a way of cheating death. At least, that’s what I told myself to prepare for watching United 93, a harrowing, documentary-style reenactment, in real time, of what might have happened on the one airplane that didn’t fulfill the terrorists’ intended goals on Sept. 11, 2001. We willingly look at terrible things, often over and over — real footage of war and dramatizations, actual catastrophes and historical re-creations, the tragic outcomes of which are never in doubt — for the thrill of being alive. Perhaps we’re as astonished by our own good fortune as we are horrified by the worse fates of others who could just as well have been us. We grieve, we resolve, we call loved ones, we replay the images, humbled by our own relief.
Movies are the perfect medium for this exercise in gratitude — they always have been, with the screen so big and the audience so huddled together. And the world has never felt more precarious, or the distinctions between the lucky and the unlucky more tenuous, than they did on the day the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon was attacked, and one Boeing 757 crashed near Shanksville, Pa., diverted by doomed passengers who died yanking control away from their captors’ hands.
To his great credit, British writer-director Paul Greengrass knows this, and keeps a cataclysmic story scaled to the vulnerable men and women involved. The result is a movie experience that’s undeniably agonizing — but also unexpectedly bracing in ways I couldn’t have prepared for. Pulling the bandage of sentiment cleanly away from oozing concepts like ”heroism” and ”our nation’s war on terror” in the aftermath of recent wounds, here’s a drama about the most politically charged crisis of our time that grants the dignity of autonomy to every soul involved. In this telling, each passenger has a life that began long before he or she boarded the aircraft, not a mere representation of citizenry. Each hijacker is a man with a temperament and a religious conviction, not a cartoon monster. Todd Beamer (played by David Alan Basche) utters his now-famous ”Let’s roll” as a brief organizational statement to fellow passengers in on the plans to disarm the terrorists, not as a booming call to patriotism. No wonder so many guys from aviation were willing to play themselves in the re-creation. Perhaps they too wanted to cheat death by revisiting that day of unfathomable national chaos.
It is, indeed, the awesomeness of puny human size that is newest and most riveting about United 93 — the way the filmmaker focuses on the ”averageness” of people who, unlike those who watch and remember some five years later, must scramble to make sense of incomprehensible events in the moment. (Greengrass first got at this shared smallness in Bloody Sunday, his acclaimed 2002 film of the deadly clash between civil rights demonstrators and British troops in Northern Ireland in 1972.) And so, in the beginning, attention moves casually from the prayerful preparations of the hijackers to the routine of morning activity among flight controllers, airplane crew, and the everybodies flying from here to there.
The movie is tightly built, but Greengrass is patient, letting events unfold at the pace of reality, noticing the splendor of dailiness — the way FAA honcho Ben Sliney (who plays himself) receives a standard air traffic briefing, the way flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw (played by Trish Gates, who worked for United herself) changes into heels after takeoff. (Even those professional actors recognizable from their screen and New York stage work — among them Christian Clemenson, Denny Dillon, John Rothman, and Chip Zien — manage to vanish into the real people they play.) And when we see that second plane smash into the Twin Towers — as those in the control tower at Newark did, and everyone watching TV did too — the sight is as dreadful and sickening as if we were seeing it for the first time. But then Greengrass gets back to the still-living, hanging in the air. Decisions need to be made at the various flight centers, with little confirmed information to go on. At the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York, commanders trained to take action scramble to establish a chain of command that will let them plan a response. On that last doomed plane, passengers begin to make those phone calls home that have come to stand as testaments. The final struggle takes only a few minutes, but it feels like an eternity, a blur of action, the deadly outcome of which cannot be changed by wishing it otherwise.
Do we need to see this? No. There’s no right or wrong way to remember 9/11, no shame in skipping the movie-fied sight or prize for those who dare to look. Do we benefit from recognizing, in United 93, that there’s no difference between those who died and us, in fear and in courage? Absolutely.