Among the Heroes:
United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back
If there was ever a film depicting a real event that came with intense responsibility to tell it right and with the right proportions of sensitivity, this is it. At a time when emotions are still felt at the mere mention of 9/11, but at a low enough level to consider looking closely at it, writer-director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") takes on the challenge with a minute-by-minute account of how it went down first, in the flight control decks of airports, airlines and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), and then in one of the highjacked planes, itself.
The accounting ranges from exact data, through time-stamped phone and officially taped messages and records, to a carefully considered but fictionalized guess. With so much to recount from so many perspectives, the editing is necessarily tight, the intensity riveting. It makes for spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat drama despite the known outcome much of which comes from the mere visualization of things we only imagined in pieces and segments as we read our papers and saw the news.
Greengrass' production style works well, down to the hand held camera that gives it immediacy and fluidity, paying off especially in the cabin of the plane which had no breakaway walls but was, rather, a complete and fully enclosed airplane. Hoists and pulleys closely approximated its movements timed precisely to the records of the flight. The hustle and bustle quality of the constantly busy, every changing activity of air travel, from the terminal to the control rooms, provide the action in the early going, and the nervous quality of the camera foreshadows the rise of terror that we know awaits the passengers. The payoff is in the last act, when the confined spaces and focused dread is well depicted by the athletic spontaneity of the "free" documentary style.
Greengrass reaches the highest level of accuracy by employing some of the real people to play themselves, to repeat the moments when they were puzzled by what they were seeing on their scopes and monitors, slowly coming to the realization that they were actually dealing with a highjacking after 20 quiet years, and the rising level and meaning of the attack. If we're seeing this through the eyes of the actual officials, such as FAA national operations manager Ben Sliney who plays himself, one can hardly argue with the issue of accuracy, particularly in depicting the frustration of ill-preparedness for an unforeseen attack and the white house leadership's absence from the command structure at the critical time.
Out of the 4 planes that were highjacked, United 93 is the only one that didn't reach its destination, the White House -- a fact Americans find an heroic example of the national mindset: the coming together to face a psychotic enemy. The taped line, "Let's roll," uttered at the outset of their counterattack on the highjackers in a frantic last-minute attempt to enter the cabin and take control of the aircraft, these words of steely intent still ring in our collective American consiousness, recalling a moment of chilling desperation.
Beyond the real people in the case, the actors and supporting players bring detailed honesty to the re-creation, fastidiously rather than stereotypically chosen. The power and impact of performance is aided by an avoidance of magnification of any individual or moment, aiding the "you-are-there" quality of the event, both from its recorded sources and from the imagined part of the scenario. Excellent casting required a team, headed off by Amanda Mackey.
The look of the film is unadorned reality under the well-stated cinematography of Barry Ackroyd. Editing rarely is such a primary contributor to the success of a film's storytelling and pace as it is here, and the team of Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson is more than notable. In a similar application of good taste, John Powell created a score that was entirely supportive of the drama while never going overboard in highlighting itself.
This is a film with a great responsibility, which cast and crew got exactly right. This is objective filmmaking whose intense emotional content derives from storytelling precision. In all, the effort bears the stamp of an honest approach that conforms in all its exacting detail to the responsibilities the film carries as its basic requirement. And, it would hard to imagine a director who could have done a better job.