Last week, I was in New York City for a wedding, and my son was with me for what was his first trip to the city. Among our first stops was the World Trade Center complex. We walked around the fenced Ground Zero, and down into the Path Subway station, where, standing at the basement level, you can still see what little of the sub-basement girders remain. I tried as best as I could to reconstruct for him how the buildings had stood—what the place looked like before 9/11. I described briefly some details of the day that I thought that he did not know. It is an exercise in remembering that I recommend for anyone traveling to NYC.
Last night, I did a different kind of remembering. I saw the United 93 film, which tells the story of the flight that crashed on 9/11 in Shanksville, PA. The first thing that struck me was that there were no previews. I presume that this was a business decision by Universal Studios. Nonetheless, it was effective in creating a sudden, stark, almost jolting opening. Accustomed as I am to fifteen minutes of previews, United 93 begins with the sounds of the hijackers offering their evening prayers on what is the night before the hijacking, as images of bustling New York City streets are interspersed on the screen.
As the movie progresses, we are thrust immediately into the events of the day. The travelers are already traveling, the air traffic controllers are at work, and the hijackers are carrying out their plot. There is no extended character development—we do not know who the passengers are, what Todd Beamer does for a living (indeed, I had trouble telling who he was), or what brought the terrorist to this place. The one character the viewer gets slightly more detail about is Ben Sliney, National Operations Manager at the FAA, who, in one of the first scenes of the film, is welcomed to the command center for his first day in that lead position. I found the actor’s portrayal quite realistic—and it should be. The actual Ben Sliney played himself in this movie.
Giving additional realism, the fight scenes on the plane are chaotic. At times, it is difficult to tell what is happening. You are one of the passengers. Director Paul Greengrass used some of the jerky camera work that he, to my mind, overused in directing The Bourne Supremecy. I didn’t like the jerkiness there, but it worked here.
Some of the early reviews I have seen complain that the film creatively filled in too many gaps of events on the plane. As an initial matter, I don’t share that complaint. There are not a lot of new events added. The frenetic discovery by the passengers and decision to take action is done with very little dramatic elaboration. Indeed, the one substantive change I noted was that the famous, "Let’s roll," quote is actually downplayed, and made less dramatic by being uttered by what appeared to be a different passenger out of earshot of any phones.
The other complaint I presume will follow is that the film’s depiction of the hijackers praying and praising Allah as they carried out their terrorism is somehow anti-Islamic. The prayers may make some people uncomfortable, but the depiction is supported by the actual events. I will note that there is one particularly poignant scene toward the end, during which the lead hijacker is praying in the cockpit, and the passengers, who are about to storm it, pray the "Our Father."
Finally, there is the repeated complaint that the film was made "too soon." I disagree. For far too many of us, 9/11 has become a distant memory. For those at the ACLU, security issues are not to be taken seriously, but are the punch lines of fundraising letters. But for members of Al Qaeda, we are still at war—a war which Bin Laden has said even recently he will bring again to our shores. The only thing that has happened "too soon" is our attempt to put 9/11 behind us—to believe that we are, once again, an island away from the troubles of the rest of the world. We must not forget. If the complete silence in the theater as I exited is any indication, United 93 does an impressive job of helping us to remember.