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'United 93'

By Mark Moorehead

April 29, 2006

Just minutes prior to the screening of United 93 there was a lot of chitchat among the film critics anticipating at best an awkward and misguided attempt to present a very personal and unpleasant American tragedy.

At worse, some of us feared such a film would sensationalize and exploit the lives of the heroic passengers doomed on Flight 93. Just making the movie seemed undignified. In short, itís a film many people would prefer not to see depicted on the big screen, now or in the near future. With little faith in Hollywood to treat this open wound of a memory with accuracy and dignity, it was a relief to see that we were wrong.

When the movie ended, it was a solemn moment. Moviegoers quietly filed out of the theater. Few words were exchanged. We paid our respects by our silence. You could feel a shared sense of awe and admiration among the audience for that group of average people flying helplessly to a destination that would result not only in their own deaths but the tragic demise of hundreds of other innocent Americans as they executed a daring plan to overcome four fanatical terrorists.

Director Paul Greengrassí effort far exceeded our expectations, replacing skepticism with appreciation. I canít imagine any other director taking on this project and delivering such a powerful, riveting film.

Greengrass explores the story of United Flight 93 from beginning to end via four vantage points: the air traffic control tower in New York; FAA headquarters in Virginia; NORAD, a military surveillance installation in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and from inside the aircraft.

As the first hijacking unfolds, air traffic controllers are so surprised they assume itís a technical glitch and are slow to respond. Soon a second plane is hijacked, drawing the attention of FAA command central director Ben Sliney.

Slineyís performance is solid, real and convincing. Thatís because in real life Sliney was director of the FAA during 9/11, and plays himself.

What makes this film work is that director Greengrass wisely chose virtually unknown actors to play the roles instead of stars like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. Viewers feel like theyíre watching real people with all their strengths and frailties. And, by including a handful of the actual players that lived through that infamous day, like Sliney, the story plays out in real time with believable characters.

Knowing the outcome of Flight 93, I was surprised to feel a sense of dread whenever the camera returned to the cabin of the aircraft. I actually felt relief when the scene switches back to FAA headquarters to witness an army of bureaucrats scrambling to keep up with the seemingly uncontrollable events and shocking scene of a smoking World Trade Center on CNN.

One poignant moment in the film takes place in the air traffic control tower in New York City as controllers stand in stunned silence watching a second aircraft plow into the second tower of the World Trade Center. Theyíre in a state of shock. No one knows what to do. Slowly and somewhat ineptly officials begin to take action.

The lack of preparedness in our military response is presented by the commander of NORAD, who scrambles Air Force fighters to intercept the hijacked planes, only to discover later the fighters lacked weapons or flew off on standard preplanned flight paths in the opposite direction of their intended targets. It was a unbelievably sobering scene.

Based on actual flight recordings, cell phone calls to family members and the memories of those actually there at the time of these events, United 93 will probably stand the test of time as the most accurate portrait of a day none of us will ever forget.


Mark's Movie Meter

General Audiences: A

One of the best films of the year. Not easy watching. However, itís a respectful tribute to the brave men and women who dared to resist terrorism. Bad language in the film arrives only near the end and is brief.

Family Audiences: B

An unflinching documentary style dramatization of the hijacking of United Flight 93 on 9/11 is inappropriate for children younger than 14. For those ages 15 and older, itís an accurate and compelling history lesson. Rated R for language and some intense (but brief) sequences of terror and violence.


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