The Difficulties of Facing Flight 93

I finally forced myself to watch Flight 93 and found it wrenching, conscientious, and hard to critique because it works on the viewer like an extraordinarily immediate history lesson. I was worried that it would end up sanctifying the brave passengers in a pious variation on Airport as the trailer implied, but director Paul Greengrass researched the story carefully, and his screenplay acknowledges the complexity of what was going on in the air on September 11, 1991.

For much of the movie, you get to look over the shoulders of paunchy middle-aged traffic controllers with bad buzz haircuts as they stare in bewilderment at numbers and x’s and lines on green screens. The story operates very much like Greek tragedy in the way you already know what will happen, so the simple everyday process of boarding a commercial flight in Newark, New Jersey of all places takes on a ghastly significance. Buckle up for safety. How many people actually listen to stewardesses when they repeat the emergency procedures before takeoff? The film begins with the terrorists praying in hotel rooms, enjoying the lax security at the airport, and then waiting around the terminal to board. The Americans are blithely unaware of any risk beyond having their flight delayed. United Airlines 93 was only partially full of passengers enroute to San Francisco, and the stewardesses are happy to have fewer people to feed breakfast.

Greengrass also understands dramatic pacing as the traffic controllers in the towers over Boston, New York, and Cleveland gradually become aware that the pilots of American Airlines flights 11 and 175 have stopped communicating with them. Back at the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Herndon Virginia, Ben Slivey plays Ben Slivey, national operations manager, the chief administrator of all the controllers across the country. He wanders around the center, chumming it up with the men, discussing coffee. As he heads for a meeting, someone mentions a possible hijacking of flight 11, and he says to keep him informed if something more definite comes up. Like others, he has a hard time believing a hijacking could be taking place. How long has it been? 30 years since the last one?

Behind the scenes, many of the actors playing the passengers have had emotional communications with the families who lost a loved one on the flight. In stark contrast to the usual star-making process, these actors have researched playing specific ordinary Americans, and they improvise many of their lines depending on the situation. The resulting dialogue is banal enough, but it doesn’t distract from the film’s emotional intensity. Greengrass develops suspense mostly through the accelerating language of the flight officials. In the military’s operation center Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), the commander has been simulating a jet fighter attack, but now the hijackings have forced him to work on a real event instead. No one either in the military or the FAA was remotely ready for the first attack on the World Trade Center because the hijacked planes flew underneath the radar. You can hear their frustration as they gradually realize that there could be 10 hijacked planes. Then the film reaches its height of eloquence when the New York controllers all go dumb as they watch the second plane crash into the second World Trade Center tower.

Does the film have any flaws? I had a hard time watching the continual use of jerky handheld cameras, and the editing of this frenetic style picks up speed, in effect punishing the viewer who would just like a little break in the movement for a moment. Greengrass seems afraid of boring the audience, and he also probably recognized that any lull in the action would be perceived as manipulative. His reality TV style keeps the film raw, but it is also relentless.

Flight 93 still raises the question as to whether or not one should make a film of, and profit from, recent terrorist acts. But by approaching the project with humility and an unflinching desire for accuracy, Greengrass forces the viewer to face the annihilation of everyone on board. Once the passengers found out about the other planes hitting the WTC and the Pentagon, they chose to try to take back Flight 93 from terrorists menacing them with knives and what looked like a bomb strapped to one man’s chest. That moment of decision still reverberates in the midst of the film’s many uncertainties, and that is what makes Flight 93 so powerful.