All the King's Men
The Great Raid
Kingdom of Heaven
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Passion of the Christ
Pride and Prejudice
Walk the Line
The Painful Reality of
United 93 (April 28, 2006)
Watching United 93, I was reminded of the television show,
24. In both, the action unspools in real time, the shaky
camera work creates the feel of a documentary, and the tension builds
slowly but inexorably. Both make for taut, compelling, political
But of course, unlike 24, United 93 isn't fiction.
We lived it, and almost five years later, images of 9/11 remain
seared into our memories. Yet for most of us, those ingrained scenes
and pictures come largely from television. We were observers that
day, not participants.
United 93 painfully yet movingly changes that. We're invited
to peer over the shoulders of air traffic controllers struggling
to make sense of airplanes vanishing off radar screens. We watch
military commanders scrambling not only to get fighter planes in
the air, but also the authorization to shoot down civilian jets.
We agonize with FAA officials trying to keep track of conflicting,
And most harrowingly, we join the passengers on United 93, both
in the deceptively mundane first fifty minutes of the flight, and
in its last frightening thirty minutes, when their world-and ours-changed.
"This is real world," barks a military officer to stunned
subordinates as first news of the attack came in. "Not a simulation."
Though just a film, United 93 feels the same.
Q. But isn't it too soon-and too exploitative -to have a movie
A. Not according to the families of the United 93 victims, who gave
their blessing to director Paul Greengrass. And to keep it rooted
in reality, the film's researchers poured over hundreds of documents
and interviewed dozens of participants. Far more than most historically
based films, this movie stays remarkably true to the known facts.
Even the casting adds a ring of authenticity. No big stars were
hired, and in some cases, actual flight attendants, pilots, and
air traffic controllers played those roles. And the part of FAA
chief Ben Sliney-the man who ordered American airspace closed and
all planes grounded that morning-is played by the real Ben Sliney.
Q. One of the hijackers looks like a teenager. How young was
A. Ahmed Al Nami was just twenty three, and his fellow hijackers
aboard United 93 only a few years older. But despite his baby face,
Al Nami is depicted here as the hijacker who acted most aggressively
and threateningly towards the passengers.
Q. One hijacker appeared somewhat hesitant about the attack.
Any truth to that?
A. Probably not, though perhaps this was a nod to the hijacker's
family. Ziad Jarrah, the lead hijacker on United 93, grew up in
Lebanon, part of a Westernized, middle-class family with little
political or religious fervor. His family was incredulous after
9/11, insisting that Ziad was not a terrorist, and would never have
joined Al Qaeda. They argued vehemently that his identity had been
Yet overwhelming evidence gathered by the FBI after the attacks
point to Jarrah as a key conspirator for the 9/11 attacks. Jarrah
had spent time with Mohamed Atta, and had received training in a
Florida flight school. And apparently, Jarrah was the hijacker who
took the controls of United 93 after the pilots were killed.
Q. Did the pilots of United 93 actually get a message warning
them to "beware any cockpit intrusion," and informing
them of the planes hitting the World Trade Center?
A. Yes, just two or three minutes before the hijackers seized the
plane. Captain Jason Dahl had no sooner sent back a puzzled response
asking for confirmation of the message, when he was attacked and
apparently killed, along with the co-pilot, LeRoy Homer.
Q. The hijacker piloting the plane places a picture of the U.S.
Capitol building on the wheel, indicating it as their target. Has
that been proven?
A. No. The hijackers had turned the plane toward Washington, but
exactly where they were headed is unclear. Experts suspect it was
either the Capitol or the White House, and some argue that the size
and prominence of the Capitol would have made it an easier target
for inexperienced pilots.
Q. Did the passengers actually make it into the cockpit in the
final moments of flight 93?
A. We'll never know. We do know they stormed the cockpit, desperately
seeking to overpower the hijackers and retake control of the plane.
But the cockpit voice recording is ambiguous as to whether the passengers
succeeding in breaking into the cockpit, and it's unclear who had
control of the plane in the last frantic seconds before it plowed
into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. What is certain
is that the actions of the passengers kept the hijackers from reaching
Washington, a scant twenty minutes away by air.
Q. Where can I get more information about United Flight 93?
A. Try Jere Longman's excellent account, Among the Heroes.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor
at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. 4/28/06
Dayton Daily News piece on 4/28/06
Are we ready to relive 9/11?
Ben Sliney, FAA chief, plays himself.