‘United 93’ Documents the End of Innocence

Without swagger, passengers on fateful Sept. 11 flight rescue us from despair.

There are movies -- such as “Schindler’s List” -- that you know you should see but don’t want to go through the experience of actually watching that kind of human horror. 

Knowing that the terror, cruelty and pain inflicted are based on true events from the Holocaust makes it all the more agonizing. So you steel yourself because sometimes your job as a human being is to not look away. 

I couldn’t bring myself to watch “United 93” when it first came out because when I rent movies, escapism usually wins out over “painful but important.” 

But with the 10th anniversary of September 11 upon us, it seemed like the right time to not look away. By now, nearly everybody knows the story: After passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93 learned that other terrorists that morning had crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, they prepared to disarm the hijackers and take control of the aircraft.

The jet crashed outside Shanksville, Pa. killing everyone on board. It’s believed that the hijackers had planned to fly the plane into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Watching the movie, you can’t help but be struck by the pre-September 11 innocence of everyone from the air traffic controllers to the pilots.

Shortly before the terrorists storm his cockpit, the Flight 93 pilot reads a message that comes over the jet’s computer. He says to his co-pilot, “Two aircraft hit the World Trade Center,” and adds incredulously, “We just left Newark and the weather was beautiful.” The co-pilot responds, “That’s got to be student pilots.”

No one was prepared to imagine the unimaginable. 

Even knowing how it ends, “United 93” is riveting. Just as “Schindler’s List” director Steven Spielberg found a story to tell about the Holocaust that was ultimately uplifting, “United 93” director Paul Greengrass picks one of the most inspiring events to emerge from that terrible day. 

The story is heroic, but not in a John Wayne kind of way. There’s no swagger, and fear is everywhere. The film uses almost all unknown actors -- plain people -- so their believability isn’t spoiled by uniform good looks and star turns.

The true agony hits as the realization that they are doomed settles like fallout over the passengers. That some of them hatch a plan to fight back and take over the plane is how they rescue us from despair.

There’s nothing neat about their attempt to subdue the hijackers and storm the cockpit. Greengrass doesn’t gin up emotion with a soundtrack that swells at key moments.

It’s the ordinariness of the passengers who found courage and resourcefulness that leaves you somehow buoyed. Even as members of our species did their worse that day -- systematic, premeditated mass murder -- others did their best.

Firefighters ran into the crumbling Twin Towers to pull people out; servicemen and women helped others escape from the burning Pentagon. And 30,000 feet in the air, 40 regular people thrown together by fate stopped terrorists from using a plane to slaughter hundreds more. 

September 11 was the end of innocence; it was not the end of hope.


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