Putting aside racist, neoconservative propaganda about “radical Islam,” most of us have tried to understand what happened on 9/11 in one of two ways. There’s fiction, any one of 100 conspiracy theories that get most of the facts wrong, but get the overall narrative right. The system is rigged. There’s non-fiction, the 9/11 Commission Report, a serious investigation that drowns the truth in an avalanche of detail.
United 93 falls squarely into the second category. Director Paul Greengrass, who got his start in TV news, understands the difference between the raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis, and the kind of polished narrative that makes it into a big budget Hollywood film. He also knows how to conflate the two, to hide a polished, controlled narrative behind the appearance of the kind of raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis.
United 93, is, in fact, such an artful depiction of sense of chaos and helplessness we all felt on the day of September 11th, 2001 that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie made two years after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. If you pay attention, however, you see how closely it hues to the, sometimes dubious, “official narrative.” While Norad may have been conducting an exercise on 9/11, they dropped everything and turned their attention to the real world as soon as they learned that Flight 11 was a possible hijack. They simply didn’t have the resources, time, or proper authorization to do anything. The FAA and the air traffic controllers in Boston, Newark and Cleveland are all conscientious, quick thinking men who responded to the unprecedented terrorist attack with the right instincts. The head of the FAA is a decisive man who risks his career to make the right decision, to stop all air traffic over North America, until further notices. Nobody at the gates at any of the major airports makes any mistakes. None of the terrorists look very suspicious.
This is, of course, all true. Norad couldn’t have done very much on 9/11. The head of the FAA did make a brave decision that saved lives. It’s highly unlike that either of the planes that hit both towers of the world Trade Center could have been shot down. It’s only in the second half of United 93, when Greengrass turns to United 93 itself, that fiction, or at least, speculation, comes into play. Nobody on Flight 93 survived. We have a few phones calls relaying some of the information. We know the plane crashed before it reached it’s target. We know the passengers staged a rebellion against their terrorist captors. That’s about it.
We don’t know how the individual terrorists acted. We don’t know if the flight attendants stole weapons out from under their noses. We don’t know much about the debate that took place before Todd Beamer led the attempt to take back control of the plane. Above all, we don’t know if the plane was shot down or not. United 93 takes the firm stance that it was not, that the terrorists crashed it near Shanksville Pennsylvania during a struggle with the passengers, who, by that point, were agonizingly close to seizing the wheel. It would, of course, be too painful to think about the possibility that they might, in fact, have had it under control before Cheney ordered it blown out of the sky. So Greengrass doesn’t.
United 93, is, in the end, a very well-done painting of our emotional state that day. But it tells us little we didn’t already know. We don’t even get to know very much about the passengers who saved the Capitol Building from meeting the same fate as World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2. In the end, Greengrass decides to play it safe. The whole film is a beautiful cop out masked by the false appearance of uncut reality.