How movies explained the lone unrecorded event of 9/11

By John Markert
September 8, 2011
By John Markert
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Certain events are seared into the collective memory of those who lived at the time the event occurred. Those most affected are those who experienced the event during their critical ages of adolescence and early adulthood; those least affected are those who are born after the event occurred because of their psychological distance from the event. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy may be historical footnotes for those born after the event, but few that heard of the tragedy at the time fail to remember where they were or what they were doing when they first learned of its occurrence.

The collapse of the WTC may be even sharper on the mind than earlier historical events for those who lived through it. In part, this is due to the extensive television coverage that took place as the twin towers collapsed and to the ensuing search for survivors and cleanup efforts that followed. In part, it is also owing to the video-recording equipment widely available to the man on the street. This visual coverage of the collapse of the twin towers, the narrator of In Memoriam: New York City 9/11/2001 points out, is the reason it is “the most documented event in history.” The amount of film footage also explains the outpouring of documentaries examining the collapse.

But here, consider two fictional films that eulogize the heroic spirit of those who died on 9/11, whose actions took place far from any camera, and thus have gone unrecorded and undocumented: Flight 93 and United 93. They are not about the WTC or the war on terror; they are about the actions of unsung heroes of 9/11.

Flight 93 is an A&E made-for-television movie. The opening shows United Airline pilots going off to work in the early morning of 9/11, one kissing his sleeping wife and baby good-bye. The next ten minutes is filled with buildup: passengers, including the hijackers, going through airport security; people boarding their flights; airplanes in queue for takeoff. The next twenty minutes is spent at the American, United, and FAA Command Centers as air traffic controllers frantically track the flights, then the visual of three of the four missing planes hitting their designated targets. The viewer then joins the passengers and crew aboard the missing airline. The rest of the film shows the passengers aboard United 93 talking on cell phones to their loved ones, the hijackers taking control of the plane, the passengers being huddled to the rear of the plane, and, finally, after they learn that the WTC and Pentagon had been attacked, stoically charging the cockpit and spoiling the hijackers’ goal of hitting yet another target, most likely, the viewer is explicitly told in the concluding crawl, the White House. The film ends with sirens wailing toward the wreckage. The viewing audience knows there were no survivors.

Flight 93 comes in as a poor second cousin to the “big budget” feature, United 93, which is sharper in tone and more tightly woven. This is partly because the versatile director, Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) was at the helm. United 93 also received a substantial amount of prepublicity attention, largely over whether it was too soon or appropriate to graphically depict what happened on this flight, a concern that preceded Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center as well. Flight 93, which appeared a year earlier on television, did not provoke the same attention. This appears to be largely owing to some astute marketing. When the trailers ran in Manhattan prior to the opening of the movie, the audience responded with cries of “Too soon!”

This was capitalized on by Greengrass in a flurry of interviews shortly before the file was released, giving the film a lot of free prerelease publicity. In one interview, Greengrass says, “Why are people saying it’s too soon? Like the people on that flight, we need to agree about what to do about terrorism. And I think we need to have that conversation now.” In another interview, he says, “I’ve tried so hard to stick to my principles and guidelines—that you honor and dignify the memories of innocent people who are the victims to political violence. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Both films depicted the same event in pretty much the same manner, but there are two major differences in the treatment of events.

Until United 93, it was typical in documentary works to scapegoat those in the various flight control centers for their ineptitude at failing to know (and therefore to minimize if not prevent) what was occurring in the air. This does not occur in United 93. Air traffic controllers are feverishly working to ascertain what is taking place and attempting to forestall further problems. In one scene the flight control supervisor screams, “Get Langley on the phone. We need [interceptor] planes in the air, NOW!” In another scene, the supervisor is trying to figure out from the National Security Council what the rules of engagement are: “We have no shoot-down order at this time,” he tells those in flight control. “[It] has to come from the president, and only the president,” and later, “Get the Pentagon on the phone, I need action!”

The confusion was undoubtedly widespread in the various control towers because so many things were going wrong in the air at the same time—a point made explicit in one of the tower control scenes—but the viewer gets a more realistic picture of the problem facing those who were attempting to do their job. Cinematically, the time devoted to this aspect of the movie, a good thirty minutes, was successful because the frantic information that was coming into the towers is tightly juxtaposed with a series of placid scenes taking place aboard United 93: copilot chitchat, bored passengers, food being served, and other mundane activity. 

The other major contextual difference is that those on the plane are acting more realistically. In Flight 93, the hijackers take over, kill the pilots and one of the flight attendants (off-screen), and force the passengers to the back of the plane. The passengers appear dazed and confused over what is taking place, make some calls to loved ones on the ground to say good-bye, and then decide to take action and stop the hijackers. This also occurs in United 93, albeit more graphically—the stewardess is shown having her throat cut by a hijacker with box cutters— but the viewers see not just confusion among the passengers, but fear! The passengers are scared! They are terrified! And they initially decide to attempt to stop the hijackers, not in some altruistic effort to save the world, but to save themselves, even if they might in the end feel, after learning of the other terrorist attacks, that they have to attempt to take the cockpit, despite that it could well mean their own deaths.

United 93 is a much more realistic portrait of how people react to a life-threatening situation, and Greengrass, who had previously successfully portrayed Irish terrorism in Bloody Sunday, was familiar with human reaction to terrorism. Others had shied away from this, not wishing to tarnish the heroic image of the passengers on Flight 93. This is most likely due to the well-entrenched heroic tradition that was firmly established in the press and among other WTC-related movies. Greengrass was concerned about this too. He says that he remembers “sitting down with one of the widows and saying, ‘I’m going to have to be pretty explicit about the violence and not sanitize it,’” and was told, “She said, ‘You don’t have to worry . . . I know what happened, and there isn’t a night that I don’t think about it. You need to show it in every detail.’ This was [a] pretty common sentiment in the families.”

It might be wistful to imagine life in a world untouched by the effects of 9/11, but the reality is that this is no longer possible. The terrorist attack of 9/11 made the United States, and her citizens, vulnerable like never before. A decade later, people are still going about their business under the shadow of 9/11. Still, the malaise that swept the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is less intense today. In part, this is due to the passing of time. In part, it is because the media has helped people explore and understand what happened.

Woody Allen asserts that film, including tragedy, should be “calming and reassuring.” Not everyone would agree that this is the purpose of film. Nevertheless, those films that address 9/11 events are specifically made to calm and reassure people. This is often stated in interviews with many of those involved with making these films, and it is clear in their intent—the film’s content.

There was no way, however, to document what happened in the air on Flight 93 the morning of 9/11.  But there was a wealth of detail that could be pieced together from the numerous cell phone calls made by passengers that day to loved ones that they would never see again.  It was left to fictive features to give us a portrait of what happened on Flight 93 that day.

This excerpt adapted with permission from Post-9/11 Cinema: Through a Lens Darkly (Scarecrow Press), by John Markert. Copyright © 2011, John Markert.

Photo: Karl Bewley of Franklin, Indiana pauses to examine the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, September 10, 2009.  REUTERS/Jason Cohn

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