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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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."

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