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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 thrillers.

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, surreal information.

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 about 9/11?
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 he?
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 stolen.

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.


The hijackers.


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu