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.
The movie was already sparking controversy weeks before it opened, when some audiences objected to seeing the trailer, saying that it is too soon for a Sept. 11 film. But the makers of "United 93" say it's important to revisit that day in a responsible manner, to understand what happened, honor the victims, and glean lessons from it.
"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."
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.
"They had to make a choice very quickly," says David Alan Basche, who plays Todd Beamer, the passenger who was heard uttering the words that became a rallying cry following Sept. 11, "Let's roll." "And it was, thankfully, I think, a very courageous choice they made as a group. I think audiences will be inspired by that."
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."
Much of what we know about the passengers' attempts to retake Flight 93 from the terrorists comes from the phone calls the passengers and crew made from the doomed flight. As the moment of their rebellion looms, the camera shows several passengers praying, a scene that at least one passenger's family found particularly touching.
"We're people of faith, we're Christian. Todd was Christian," says David Beamer, Todd Beamer's father. "One of the facts of that day was that in that hour, when he was on the phone with Lisa Jefferson [a GTE operator], he and Lisa Jefferson prayed together. And because that's an important part of our faith and our value system, and reality as to what happened, having a bit of that included in the recreation of the events is important to us."
That's not the only moment when faith makes an appearance in "United 93." The movie opens with the only scene to show any of the characters prior to arriving at the airport--the terrorists preparing for their mission, in part by praying and reading scripture. Greengrass says that his purpose was to show that the takeover of four airplanes was not the only type of hijacking that occurred on Sept. 11.
"The other... is the hijack by those young men of a religion, Islam, hijacked by a group of ideologically driven, extraordinarily devout, woefully misplaced individuals," Greengrass says. "Devoutness, the closed nature of the beliefs, it's part of the particularity of fundamentalists--thinking you create a closed belief system, so you can become blind, so that you can, literally, as they do in the middle of the flight, get up and kill an innocent stewardess and believe in your mind that you're doing it on behalf of God."
Inevitably, discussing a movie about Sept. 11 comes around to its aftermath, the war on terror. And the filmmakers are hoping that this movie helps clarify our national debate about that war.
"We don't all agree about what we should do, and the fact that we don't agree has really dominated all of our politics, national and international, it seems to me, since 9/11," Greengrass says. "And so, for me, the film is an attempt to go back to those two hours and examine it in a clear and a mature and a reasonable fashion to try and see what we can learn."
It's also intended as a reminder, a wake-up call of sorts, to remain vigilant regarding the threat of terrorism.
Ben Sliney, who was in charge of the FAA's command center on Sept. 11--and who plays himself in the film--recalls hearing a New York firefighter call into a local news show that was discussing "United 93" recently.
"He said--and I agree with him--that we've become complacent, and we need to be reminded," Sliney says. "And I think that encapsulates how I feel about it. I don't think you can spend enough time getting me and you and everybody else who walks the streets and engages in our lives to be more aware."
Greengrass and the actors made clear that they see the struggle on Flight 93 as America's first volley in the war on terrorism. It is this idea--encapsulated by the first theatrical release about 9/11--that brings pride to family members of those heroes.
"All the passengers and the crew, having found themselves in that circumstance, reacted, made a plan, and really launched our first counter-attack in our homeland in this new war," Beamer says. "It was a blessing to us that Todd and the others did what they did."
He offers unqualified praise for "United 93," saying Greengrass succeeded in producing a film that is historically accurate and enshrines the legacy of the passengers and crew members who fought back on Sept. 11--so much so, that he sees no need for Hollywood to revisit this particular tragedy.
"I would say to any of those who are contemplating other projects around other aspects of 9/11, perhaps, they would do well to have a close look at how this one was done," Beamer says. "There need be no more. This one got it. It's an important story, for our generation, for generations to come, for free people all over the world."