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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.