Someday the events of 9/11/01 will be distant enough that we will see some meaningful and illuminating works of art inspired by it. That seems a long way off, but some filmmakers have taken the first steps in that direction. I cannot tell you whether you are ready to see a movie about the only hijacked flight that did not hit its target on September 11, 2001 because a brave group of passengers subdued the hijackers, crashing the plane into the ground. I can only tell you that when you are ready, this respectful, heart-wrenching, quietly devastating movie will be the one you want to see.
When it happened, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, knocking it down, and smashing a section of the Pentagon, dazed Americans everywhere said, “It’s like a movie.” It was so stunning, so unthinkable, so audacious, it seemed that those images on television just had to be CGI. This was America. We like to think of ourselves as unconquerable. Couldn’t Bruce Willis show up at the last minute to save the day?
But it wasn’t a movie. As we watch this one, knowing what will happen, though, we can’t help hoping for a Hollywood ending.
It really raises the essential core question of the meaning of stories. Since the cave days, humans have told stories to help us make sense of the world, as a dress rehearsal for our emotions, as a way to communicate our values. We are still making movies about cowboys, about WWII, about moments throughout history and moments we imagine in the future that pose the deepest questions about honor, courage, loyalty, dedication, and dreams. This movie is a preliminary step as we begin to take September 11 from shock to story.
Much like the award-winning “Elephant” (about a school shooting), this movie begins with the smallest and most mundane details of the day as people go to work and get ready for trips. They chat about their plans and their families and complain good-naturedly about inconveniences. We don’t get the usual movie-style introductions to the main characters. We meet them just as we would if we were passing by them on the way to the office or to catch a plane, quick glimpses and snatches of overheard conversations. But our own knowledge of what lies ahead of them makes the very ordinariness of it heart-breaking, terrifying.
And then come the first indications that something is wrong. But what? Why doesn’t the pilot respond? The obvious likely answer was an equipment problem. Even when it seemed that there had been a hijacking, all the people in charge could imagine was that they would want what previous hijackers had wanted — passage to some safe harbor.
What the terrorists had in mind was literally inconceivable for the flight crews, passengers, air traffic controllers, law enforcement, and military who were trying to understand and control the situation. It had been 20 years since the hijack of a commercial airliner in the United States. There was no way to try to stop them because there was no way to imagine what they were planning. Nothing so suicidal and destructive had ever been attempted before.
And that meant that there were no systems set up for communication and coordination in responding. And that makes what the passengers on United flight 93 did so moving. They called home and told their families they loved them. And then, with a quiet, “Let’s roll,” they took back the plane, crashing it into the ground but keeping it from its target, possibly the White House.
Filmed in an intimate, even claustrophobic documentary style, it keeps us, like the characters in the film and the real-life characters they portray, given little access to information about what is going on. A cast that is mostly unknown helps sustain the sense that this is footage of what really happened. Occasionally we are startled by a familiar face. But the best performance is by the FAA’s Ben Sliney, the man whose first day on the job was September 11, 2001 and the man who ordered all plans grounded, as himself.
Will the generations who watch this film a century from now think of it the way we think of the Alamo? Perhaps if they live in a time when these kinds of suprise attacks are again unimaginable, this movie will be a good reminder of the beginning of a journey toward peace and freedom.
Parents should know that the movie has intense and very sad terrorist violence. While it is not as explicit as many R-rated movies, its re-enactment of real-life events makes it much more powerful than the usual “action violence” on screen. There is brief strong language. A strength of the film is the way it shows that many of the characters — different in so many ways — respond to the direst of circumstances the same way, by praying, in their varied faith traditions.
Families who see this movie should talk about the mistakes made by the officials who were trying to understand what was going on. What should they have done differently? They should also talk about whether we are safer now, and what every American can do to help protect our country from terrorism.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate some of the documentaries about the events of September 11, 2001.