Let's Roll! Inside the Making of United 93

  • On United Airlines flight 93—out of Newark, scheduled for San Francisco, bound for history—34 passengers caught up on paperwork or dreamed their last dream. Four others were there on a mission.

    Forty-six minutes into the flight, one of them shouted in Arabic and brandished a bandolier of explosives. Another got into the cockpit, stabbing the pilot and co-pilot. A third seized the controls. Some of the captives, getting on phone lines, learned that two other planes had torpedoed into the World Trade Center. Realizing their doom, the passengers also found a mission. They stormed the hijackers, rammed their way into the cockpit and, to keep the plane from being one more missile aimed at a U.S. landmark, tried to wrest command of it.

    Fourteen times.

    That's how many times Paul Greengrass, writer-director of United 93, put his cast through the hijacking and ensuing heroics. On a set in suburban London's Pinewood Studios, where many James Bond fantasies have been filmed, Greengrass staged this real-life, high-stakes death battle over and over—the whole ordeal, nonstop, in takes lasting from 20 to 55 min., as the reconstructed Boeing 757 would wobble and shudder, and the camera crew followed the action like nosy paparazzi. Says Cheyenne Jackson, who plays Mark Bingham, one of the stalwart passengers: "We spent so many hours throwing our trays around and bleeding and screaming and crying and praying, and throwing up and peeing ourselves, and trying to imagine every possibility of what these people were going through. It was an environment where we could go to these deep, dark places. But the saddest thing about it was that finally we could wash off our makeup and come out of those places."

    He means that the passengers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, of course, could not come out; they crashed and died, along with the hijackers, in a field near Shanksville, Pa. But there are many Americans for whom the dark place of a movie auditorium is a last refuge from reality. The trailer for United 93 has upset viewers with its gritty evocation of that day, especially a shot of the plane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center. Audiences who wouldn't flinch at slasher movies and serial-killer thrillers have shouted back at the previews. A multiplex in Manhattan yanked the trailer after complaints from patrons. Some were angry, some in tears. They felt violated to see, in the guise of entertainment, a pinprick reminder of a tragedy for which Americans still grieve and which they may wish to keep buried, along with the people and the image of national invulnerability lost that day.

    Yet the events of 9/11, like a nightmare that haunts the waking, have permeated the media. Not just the all-news channels but also books, plays, songs. Michael Moore's political take, Fahrenheit 9/11, scared up $119 million at the domestic box office, and abc is preparing a mini-series based on The 9/11 Commission Report, with Stephen Root as terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke and Harvey Keitel as John O'Neill, the fbi's al-Qaeda sleuth who died in the World Trade Center carnage. Flight 93, a TV movie about the same events shown in United 93, reaped the A&E; Network's all-time highest ratings and stoked no protests.

    Perhaps those who saw the trailer didn't realize that this was the one flight, of the four hijacked that day, with an inspiring ending. This was the one on which the good guys, following passenger Todd Beamer's John Wayne-like invocation, "Let's roll," foiled the bad guys. The saga of this flight makes for, in 9/11 terms, a feel-good movie. Just as important, United 93, at which Time was given an exclusive first look, is a good movie—taut and implacable—that honors the deeds of the passengers while being fair, if anyone cares, to the hijackers' jihad bravado. (At one point the passengers are heard murmuring the Lord's Prayer while the hijackers whisper their prayers to Allah.) If this is a horror movie, it is an edifying one, a history lesson with the pulse of a world-on-the-line suspense film.

    Ready or not—and the pending release this week of the black-box tapes from the doomed flight suggests some kind of turning point—United 93 opens around the country April 28, three days after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, within view of the still gaping Twin Towers site. Greengrass's film is the first of a few big-studio projects dealing with 9/11. World Trade Center, the account of two Port Authority policemen trapped beneath the towers' charnel rubble, follows in August. James Vanderbilt's screenplay of Against All Enemies, Clarke's contentious memoir of his career tracking terrorists, which begins with frenetic scenes in the White House on 9/11, is floating around Hollywood. Paul Haggis, fresh from his Oscar upset with Crash, has expressed interest in directing it. Against All Enemies will get its juice from the spectacle of stratospheric double-dealing; there's more backstabbing than in Hamlet. World Trade Center promises to be a hymn to the courage and perseverance of Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). Jimeno was trapped in an elevator shaft for 15 hours, McLoughlin interred in rubble a few feet below Jimeno for 23 hours.

    The days the two men visited the set—Howard Hughes' old airplane hangar near Marina del Rey, Calif.—McLoughlin, who had 30 surgeries that left braces on his legs and an open wound on his left hip, stayed away from the 65-ft. mound of Styrofoam beams and cargo boxes meant to represent ground zero. "I hate getting upset," he says. As soot-covered extras in police and military uniforms milled around, Jimeno was reduced to tears by the sight of the too-lifelike rubble pile. "I survived for a reason," he says. "We, as a country, have a short attention span. We don't want people to forget those who died and those who saved us."

    Although the film's director is Oliver Stone, this is no paranoid panorama on the order of JFK. It's a boy-down-a-well saga with, insists first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff, "no politics. This is a small story. We're in the hole with these two guys for practically the whole movie." With the digging out comes the uplift. "I hope people will walk out of the theater and say to themselves, 'Life is short,'" Jimeno says, "and go home and hug their loved ones." Berloff has the same aim. "You don't want people leaving theaters slitting their wrists. I don't think the world is ready for the Towering Inferno version of 9/11. I don't know how you would make that movie." These three films, in various stages of gestation, all look to be honest, fact-based depictions of a central American story. They also have recognizable movie antecedents. In the horror stories of history, Hollywood picks through the carnage to find heroes, and the makers of the 9/11 films have found a few. Clarke, in Against All Enemies, is the lonely sentinel begging a smug, slow-witted establishment to take al-Qaeda seriously. He's Frank Capra's Mr. Smith after 30 years in Washington, his stubborn zeal intact. Another species of hero is the lucky survivor; and as Schindler's List was not about the nearly 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis but about 1,100 who escaped, so World Trade Center focuses on two of the last victims evacuated alive after the big buildings collapsed. As for the United 93 passengers--in movie terms, and in the life of the world--they are the first heroes of the 21st century.

    "At 28 minutes past 9," says Greengrass of Sept. 11, "none of us were wondering What are we going to do? We were watching telly, wondering What the f___ is going on? The people on United 93 weren't doing that. They were looking at four guys. They knew exactly what was going on." Knowing of the World Trade Center attack, they could surmise that their own flight might be the next weapon.

    "Subsequent to 9/11," says Greengrass, an Englishman who directed the superb docudrama Bloody Sunday, set in Northern Ireland in 1972, and the gritty espionage film The Bourne Supremacy, "we all had to make decisions about the world we live in, about the courses of action that we take. This film is saying that, before we got to that, there was this event: this extraordinary work of fate, mired in confusion, with the passengers gaining knowledge of 9/11 as they went. What that did was create a debate on the plane: What are we going to do? Are we going to do nothing and hope for the best, or are we going to do something? What can we do? What will be the consequences of both courses of action? That is our post-9/11 debate." Which the doomed, defiant passengers had just a few minutes to comprehend and resolve—on the fly.

    United 93 is a meticulous reconstruction of that morning. Greengrass worked closely with the victims' families, who had already heard the black-box recordings, and the actors, who were improvising. Few events, either on the plane or in the air-traffic control centers, are underlined for effect. As Bingham's mother Alice Hoagland notes, "What happened on board Flight 93 has so much drama and pace, it needs no embellishment."

    At the start of the film, before 93's takeoff, our knowledge of what is to come bestows a creepy portent, a sad, sick, helpless feeling, to banal intimacies and mundane activities. A simple cell-phone "I love you" holds a lifetime of poignancy; the closing of the plane door is like the sealing of a tomb with live bodies inside. In a film that, in its near finished state, runs about 105 min., it's 30 min. before Flight 93 is aloft, an additional 12 min. before the second plane hits the World Trade Center, a full hour before the hijackers seize control. For the viewer, the wait is rackingly tense, as real as a newsreel.

    That is because, wherever possible, Greengrass cast people close to their roles. J.J. Johnson, who plays the captain of Flight 93, is a real United pilot. Trish Gates, who plays head flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw, was a real United flight attendant. Ben Sliney, who as national operations manager for the faa kept track of the mounting atrocities, appears as himself. Lewis Alsamari, who plays one of the hijackers, spent a year in the Iraqi army.

    The actors playing the terrorists were kept segregated from those playing the passengers; they stayed in different hotels and did not meet until the hijack sequence was shot. Those actors had to deal with the violence on a more personal level. "We all came out with stuff that we've never seen in ourselves before," says Jamie Harding, who describes his character, Ahmed Al Nami, by saying, "I do all the beating and hurting, although I don't actually kill anybody." Alsamari says he looked at a scene in the film in which he attacks the pilot and co-pilot, "and I had my hand on my mouth. I thought, I can't believe someone could do that. It was like looking at somebody else."

    If the actors find United 93 hard to take, what will an audience's reaction be? Many people will certainly feel they're not ready to see the film. And that's fine. But it's honorable and artful as a re-creation of history, and as a film experience it's both unbearable and unmissable.

    "Movies need to address the way the world is," Greengrass says. "We have to tell stories about 9/11." He also notes, "The victims' families want this film made. Every single one of them." (Universal, the studio producing the film, is donating 10% of the first weekend's box-office gross to the Flight 93 National Memorial Fund.) Hamilton Peterson, whose father and stepmother died on the flight and who serves as chairman of Families of Flight 93, sees two reasons America needs this film. "One, we're proud of what these Americans did," he says. "These are ordinary citizens who in a matter of minutes overcame what very evil and capable people had planned for years. The passengers took action without police or official support. They knew right from wrong, and they acted on it. Out of the dark of 9/11 came these heroes. And two, it is an example that future world citizens can learn from. If you remember Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, he tried to engage a very dangerous bomb and was thwarted by the bravery of the passengers and crew. Flight 93 served as a beacon for them. I don't think you can reaffirm that message too often or too much."

    "I hope we're not as a society inured to the messages of the movie," says Hoagland. Those messages, of the hijackers' terrible cunning and dedication, the passengers' valor and sacrifice, are both timeless and timely. "I know it's not too soon," she says. "I hope it's not too late." --Reported by Clayton Neuman/New York and Rebecca Winters Keegan/ Los Angeles