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!”