The fact that we know how director Paul Greeengrass’ United 93 ends somehow makes the film all the more harrowing to watch. We know that the doomed September 11th flight out of Newark airport will be overtaken by terrorists and targeted for the U.S. Capitol. We also know that a group of passengers will rally and force the plane to crash in a field in Shanksville, PA with no survivors. Greengrass gives Americans the chance to re-live a piece of our national nightmare and nearly five years later the wound is still fresh; having known a member of the flight crew personally made an already difficult film to watch into an excruciating experience.
United Flight attendant Debbie Welsh was a member of my parish, and I considered her a friend. I remember laughing with her at parties; working side by side at the church’s annual street fair (we ran the beer booth one year, ending up soaked and tipsy); and even gleaning wisdom about marriage from her when she and her husband Patrick gave a presentation on marriage to my young adult group. Our relationship was cordial, filled with small talk and occasionally a deeper conversation in the quiet corner of a party or amidst the cacophony of carnival music—much like you might talk to that stranger seated in the window seat next to your aisle on a long cross country flight.
Debbie was the flight attendant in the first class cabin, who had a knife placed to her throat, was forced to knock to open the cockpit door and was later killed while assisting a stabbed passenger along with the two pilots. As I saw the actress (Polly Adams), who I immediately recognized as Debbie, appear on screen, perfectly capturing her always smiling face and bubbly personality, I realized that United 93 was going to be incredibly disturbing.
Greengrass takes the events of the flight, of which we know very few details, and artfully fills in gaps with a “you-are-there” style that treats the lives of the ill-fated passengers and crew with honor and reverence. This is not Hollywood sensationalism. Instead of asking us to re-live news clips and cell phone tapes from September 11, Greengrass opts for a blow-by-blow, on-board experience of the people who lived the horror of that 90 minute flight.
The strength of United 93 is found in the film’s recognition that this most terrifying nightmare was lived by 40 strangers who didn’t know anything about one another. As the passengers board, we don’t see or hear their names. It’s almost as if the audience has a seat assignment on the flight as well. We encounter “the guy wearing the blue CAL hat”, “the health care worker” who treats “the stabbed passenger,” “the guy who thinks he could fly the plane,” “the flight attendant who murmurs ohmygodohmygodohmygod,” when she sees the bodies of the pilots dragged out of the cockpit. The lack of characters’ backstories and big name stars gives the film a starkness and emotional punch. Indeed these are 40 ordinary people who are only distinguishable by their physical characteristics and seat assignments.
Greeengrass toggles between several locations all crucial to the events of the day. Scenes at air traffic towers in Boston, New York, and Cleveland as well as FAA Headquarters and the military air defense, reveal not only the fates of the other hijacked airliners but also the minds of the air traffic controllers, military personnel and particularly FAA head honcho, Ben Sliney (who like many of his colleagues plays himself in the film). We see their day go from the humdrum, to stunned disbelief, inertia, and flat-out terror as these officials try to make sense of what was unfathomable prior to 9/11.
When I ask people how their flight was after a trip, the new post 9-11 answer is often “uneventful” and that indeed is Greengrass’ point: United 93 captures the terrifying reality of strangers who are pulled out of their routine lives and thrust into their darkest hour together. My friend Debbie’s final moments were spent assisting someone harmed by a coward’s blade. She lost her life trying to help a stranger but her sacrifice was a microcosm of all the heroes of Flight 93. These people, who were nameless to one another, forged a bond through tears, screams, and yes, much fear to save other human beings on the ground whom they would never know.