Let's Roll! Inside the Making of United 93

An exclusive look at the controversial new film, one of a spate of new movies that immerse us again in the tragic events of Sept. 11

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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.

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