‘United 93’: a perspective on the 9/11-based film

One of the most tense and affecting movies I’ve seen, United 93 is likely to be one of the most controversial and yet also one of the most important films released during my lifetime.

As critics, audience members, and filmmakers, none of us can ever know what specifically occurred inside the cabins of United Flight 93, nor can we know the exact thoughts of any of the passengers on the plane, the agonizing fears they came to grips with, or the things they had to reconcile within their own minds and hearts as their plane went down, their lives, once full of promise, now lost, forever.

And yet, no matter how much of United 93 is improvised, no matter how little we know about each specific person on that plane, that’s not what really matters. Director Paul Greengrass recreates the manifest’s doomed trip in real-time, building tension from the film’s ominous beginning to its difficult yet touching end. Notice, though, that through it all, we rarely if ever hear characters referred to by name, a specific decision that sets United 93 apart from films that tell similar stories, tales of that fateful Tuesday morning.

The last-minute heroics of the passengers and remaining flight crew aboard United Flight 93 weren’t the works of one or two individuals. They were the actions of a group, a team, people working for the greater good and living up to the moral standards we all aim to reach. And that, above all else, is what Paul Greengrass gets right — of the few things we do know about the fateful flight, we know that its failure to reach its target was due at least in part to an orchestrated team effort by a group of passengers who sought to spare the lives of others by doing what was necessary: sacrificing themselves.

Is United 93 manipulative? Maybe, I suppose, but more so due to the story it tells than to the manner in which the film was constructed and presented. So many films centered around the September 11th terrorist attacks and their consequences take an exceedingly emotional approach to storytelling, completely forgetting that the emotion necessary is already alive within not just the story itself, but also within each and every one of us.

We, not just as individuals, but as a country, lost loved ones. We, not just as individuals, but as a country, cried together and comforted one another. We, not just as individuals, but as a country, came together to rebuild, to heal, and to move past that day toward a better future.

We, not just as individuals, but as a country, will never forget what happened on September 11, 2001. Instead, we live and serve to honor those lives lost, those families and friends affected most personally by these immense tragedies. Not just as individuals. As a group, a team, a country, together. That is what sets Paul Greengrass’s harrowing film apart from so many others that attempt to recreate the events of September 11th. He understands that we hurt, not just as individuals, but as a country.

“E pluribus unum” is the phrase found on the seal of the United States; reach into your pocket for a coin, and you’ll find a piece of change with that same phrase on it. It means, “Out of many, one,” a motto that describes perfectly and eloquently the aim of Greengrass’s United 93: to show that we, as Americans, are one nation under God, indivisible. No matter what.

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