Relentless Realism Was the Right Call

Like the various memorial proposals at the long-delayed Ground Zero reconstruction, only now beginning after years of paralysis, the prospect of the first movie about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inevitably inspires trepidation. It would be so easy to get it wrong, but it is so crucial to get it right.

How fortunate we are, then, that Hollywood’s first 9/11 project fell to writer-director Paul Greengrass, a one-time BBC documentarian and director of the acclaimed 2002 Bloody Sunday. Low-key, evenhanded, unflinching and deeply persuasive, United 93 is a work of extraordinary restraint and integrity.

“We live in a culture where something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it,” my friend and fellow Christian critic Peter Chattaway has observed. There is surely something to this connection between movies and reality. Over and over in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks the line was repeated: “It was just like a movie.” The ubiquitous images on the small screen, or even the firsthand experiences of survivors and rescue workers at Ground Zero — so unfathomable in themselves — could be apprehended only by their resemblance to scenarios from the fictions of the silver screen. I felt it myself, and I was among those who saw it happening with my own eyes.

In our image-driven culture, movies provide a yardstick of reality, certainly with respect to unprecedented or unusual experiences, in a way that previous cultures relied on literature or stories (“It was like something from a book”).

This, indeed, is one of the reasons why even escapist entertainment is full of dread and suffering and heartbreak, from the childhood terrors of The Wizard of Oz to the unspeakable atrocities of The Silence of the Lambs: The world is a scary place and we want to be ready for it. We want to know the worst. More importantly, we want to know that the worst can be faced.

The weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks saw a surge in rentals for movies like Die Hard and The Siege. Escapist fare, yes, but still an imaginative way of working through the stuff of our national tragedy, of seeking catharsis. The appeal of Die Hard is surely at least partly in watching John McClane defeat the bad guys in the end, but it is also vital that he spends the duration of the film terrified, suffering, making mistakes.

It is one thing to watch movies that echo the national tragedy and another for a film to depict the event itself. The 9/11 attacks remain for many an open wound. Yet if Chattaway has a point about movies making events “real,” such a movie may be, at least for many, an important step in fully assimilating what happened, which in turn is part of healing. I understand that people are not all the same, but I am not among those who think that the trend toward a closed casket, or even no casket, is a healthy sign in our culture.

At the same time, there is more to the story of Sept. 11 than death and tragedy. We need to grasp that, too. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds tapped into the horror and anxiety of 9/11, but offered little or none of the other side of the coin, the banding together, the sense of unity, the unassuming heroism.

If a movie can make it real, the wrong movie could make it obscenely unreal. Against considerable odds, Greengrass and his collaborators have made the right movie. Scrupulously well-researched and faithful to the known facts, responsible in its extrapolations about unknown events and filmed in a subdued cinéma-vérité style, United 93 offers a credible, deeply moving narrative account that seems likely to stand the test of time.

The choice to focus on United Airlines Flight 93, the single most bracing and mitigating episode in the whole dark chapter, is a key component of the film’s success. On a day of almost unmitigated infamy, a random coalition of passengers on Flight 93 gave us our one moment of victory. As horrific as things were, we did not lose the Capitol or the White House, and we owe it to those brave souls.

At every turn, the filmmakers resist the temptation to succumb to one agenda or another, to gloss over or punch up any of the possible hot potatoes, from the religious context and motives of the terrorists to the confused responses and communication problems on the ground.

The film maintains a respectful distance from its subjects, honoring their heroism without turning them into larger-than-life action heroes or self-conscious patriot-martyrs. Like movies such as Black Hawk Down and Schindler’s List, United 93 resists the temptation to reduce its subjects to characters in a drama, to presume to get inside their heads or explain who they were.

There’s no point pretending to be objective. I live in the New York area. I fly into and out of Newark Liberty Airport a number of times each year. I attended a Manhattan screening of United 93 with my brother-in-law, who was in the vicinity of Ground Zero on 9/11. Both of us went into the screening with some trepidation; Dave in particular felt unready for a movie on this subject. We left the theater grateful for the film and for the experience.

Exactly what happened in the final minutes of Flight 93 will never be known with certainty. Whatever it was, I have to think it was at least something like what we see in the film. Obviously the passengers didn’t manage to seize control of the plane, but they must have mounted a credible resistance that compromised the terrorists’ control, or the crash would not have occurred.

The filmmakers honor this somber victory, and the moral victory behind it, as best they can. Whatever monument is eventually built at Ground Zero or anywhere else, United 93 is as fitting and worthy a memorial to the victims and heroes of Sept. 11, 2001, as one could hope for.

Content advisory: Restrained depictions of strong violence; some profane language and obscenity; realistic depiction of intense terrorist menace. Could be okay for teens.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic of