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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."