Most days, Terminal B at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport looks like any other in America: There are ticket counters and food courts, and the requisite Relay Newsstand. But not today. On this January morning, there is an eerie stillness in the air as British director Paul Greengrass finishes shooting United 93, his drama about the hijacked plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Swaying gently in concentration, Greengrass watches as Khalid Abdalla, a young British actor playing hijacker Ziad Jarrah, solemnly makes his way to the check-in desk.
It’s a haunting moment. And for a lot of people, too painful a reminder of the most tragic day in modern American history. Arriving in theaters less than five years after 9/11, United 93 unfolds in real time, re-enacting the 81 minutes the San Francisco-bound flight was aloft, and ending with the passengers’ attempt to retake control. On board, there are throat slittings and beatings; on the ground, confusion and miscommunication. And now, around the country, there is upset over the trailer — AMC is running a making-of featurette instead — and concerns about exploitation, sensitivity, and the timing of the film. As the April 28 release approaches, more and more people seem to be asking the question: Why was this movie made?
”I don’t come to this subject lightly,” says Greengrass, referring to 2002’s Bloody Sunday, his film about the 1972 Irish massacre by British troops. (He also made 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy.) ”When is the right time? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I guess when the families say yes. We make films for entertainment, we tell stories to take us to fantasy worlds, to laugh, to cry. There is also a place for movies to talk about the things that concern us most. And 9/11 concerns all of us. The world changed, and we need filmmakers to explore it.”
Of all the 9/11 stories, Greengrass was drawn to Flight 93 for the simple reason that it was the last of the four hijacked planes to depart, due to a delay at Newark. By the time those aboard the aircraft rallied together, both World Trade towers and the Pentagon had been hit. ”The passengers began to learn that something terrible was going on,” the director says. ”Whereas we didn’t realize what was causing it, they knew full well because they were looking at four hijackers. And so [they] had to decide in the most unimaginably stressful conditions…what the best course of action was. That debate is our post-9/11 debate…. If you’re going to make sense of this event, which is seared with shock and fear and anger and pain and loss, then we have to go into the heart of that experience.”
Of course, no one will ever know what, exactly, happened on that flight, so Greengrass consulted every available source — The 9/11 Commission Report, cockpit recordings, transcripts from passengers’ calls — to re-create the event. The result was a 21-page treatment that he pitched to Universal last summer. The studio greenlit the project immediately and allotted a $15 million budget. ”I was [impressed] by his passion,” says president of production Donna Langley. ”This was a story he absolutely had to tell.”