"There's no mythology here. This is what really happened," says Christian Clemenson, who plays Thomas E. Burnett Jr., one of the passengers. "It's impossible to look at it dispassionately. But we have to at it honestly. And that's what this movie does, and there's value in that."
Accuracy and legacy. Looking back and looking ahead. Fidelity to mundane details and a commitment to seeking deeper, more profound truths. These are the issues that come up again and again in talking with the actors and director of "United 93," the new movie that dramatizes the fourth hijacked Sept. 11 flight, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field when its passengers fought to retake control from the terrorists.
The result is a gut-wrenching film that takes viewers back to that historic day for a real-time reenactment of the roughly 90 minutes that United Flight 93 was in the air. The action cuts back and forth between developments onboard the airplane and the reaction to the unfolding tragedy at air-traffic control centers and military bases.
At the same time, director Paul Greengrass says the film is not just about getting the facts right.
"There's no point in making a film about 9/11 and it just be a history lesson. There's got to be some point to it," he says. "The point to it is because it matters today. We're going to be faced with this problem for the rest of our lives. If we're going to do it better next time, we'd better learn the lessons, and that's one of the reasons to make the film."
The filmmakers and actors have been joined in publicly asserting the film's significance by family members of those who died on Flight 93, several of whom participated in a recent press event for the film. Filmmakers have involved the family members from the earliest stages of the project: Greengrass sought, and received, approval from family members of all the flight's crew and passengers before starting to make the movie.
"In this day and age, we have to look to certain types of media to get the message across. In our society, movies are certainly one method a story can be told," says Gordon Felt, whose brother, Edward, was among the passengers. "I think this movie goes a long way toward beginning the memorialization process of our loved ones."
In addition to speaking at length with family members, the researchers and writers for the film used the 9/11 Commission Report, information from the FAA, and transcripts of phone calls as source material. In some cases, actors spoke with victims' family members to ensure they were portraying their characters accurately.
"My sense in the making of this movie is they went to great lengths to involve family members, spending hours with family talking about our loved ones, getting background information, right down to, 'Do you think they were drinking a cup of coffee or a cup of tea that morning?' to 'What do you think they would have done?'" Felt says.
But despite that attention to detail, the film shies away from depicting any of the characters' back stories, and few are even identified by name, a strategy that family members support.
"It really establishes the fact that there were no one or two heroes on Flight 93," Felt says. "There were 40 people, and I think each contributed what they could contribute that day. And because of that, they are all heroes."
Re-enacting that heroism affected the actors deeply.
He and Clemenson both say that their involvement in "United 93" meant much more to them than any other acting job they've had.
"I almost don't want to get any benefit from it," Clemenson says. "I'm so leery of being seen as taking advantage of these families' suffering. I want to accrue no benefit."