See This Movie
It was more than a little different from other movies I’ve seen recently.
For one thing, there were only two showings that night—unlike “The DaVinci Code,” which seemed to be playing on half the screens in the cinema complex, with new showings every seven minutes.
Second, theater wasn’t at all crowded. Most of the crowd was, of course, next door, watching either “The DaVinci Code” or whatever new Vince Vaughn movie had come out last week.
Third, the movie itself—“United 93”—started on time, because there wasn’t a half hour’s worth of trailers showcasing whatever new Vince Vaughn movie is coming to a theater near us every week until the end of time.
Fourth and most unusually, the movie itself was not about making a political statement or making us feel better: it was about what happened to ordinary people on an ordinary day on the eastern seaboard of the United States of America.
“United 93” is not a movie you necessarily want to go see: you already know what happened, you already know how it ends, and you don’t particularly feel like recalling that day, especially not through the eyes of passengers preparing to die.
Furthermore, its playing time of two hours and one minute seems like a long stretch to tell a simple story: how a plane—the last of four doomed flights—came down in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001.
But all that leaves your mind as you watch four young men speaking a foreign language arriving at Newark airport and going through security; and as you see air traffic controllers in dark rooms going about their jobs monitoring blinking coded flights on the screens before them; and as you follow flight attendants walking onto a United Airlines jet talking about the most mundane facts of their lives; and as you watch the co-pilot walking around the outside of the plane doing a visual inspection of his jet while passengers board and settle in their seats, with not a thought of what would happen to them that day going through the minds of any one of them…excepting those four young men, nervous and impatient, also taking their seats, knowing exactly what they are about to do, and what will happen to them.
This is a movie that just tells its story. It does not pander. There are no stereotypes here (except perhaps that the man who urges his fellow passengers not to fight back but to cooperate with the hijackers has a Scandinavian or Eastern European accent): there is no plucky fight attendant who bravely confronts the hijackers or sagely comforts the passengers—the attendants are as shocked and cowed by the hijacker’s quick and sudden violence as the passengers.
There is no gallant struggle by the noble Captain—his throat is cut from behind as quickly and ignominiously as a deer. And there is no obvious hero among the men on the plane who decide to do something after they realize they are passengers on a bomb—no Nicholas Cage or Harrison Ford going to take out the four hijackers, grab the controls and wrestle the crippled beast to a three-point landing on a highway in the Heartland of America.
When the passengers finally decide to do something, they are not resolving inner conflicts or making up for years of bad living, as in a standard Hollywood flick. In fact, before the terror begins we know almost nothing about them except their age, the way they are dressed, and how they settle in for the flight—some by opening laptops and settling into work, others going to sleep, or asking for water, or doing the crossword puzzle in the New York Times.
After the terrorists make their move by grabbing a flight attendant and holding a knife to her throat, and by senselessly stabbing a male passenger while the plane suddenly dives as the pilots are killed and the controls are taken over, we do learn something of their lives from the snatches of whispered, desperate calls on the in-flight phones to wives, office-mates, voicemail, and, in the case of the flight attendant, to a mechanic who is the only person she can reach at a United Airlines number. But we learn nothing else about them.
Consequently, there is no one to root for, no one to cheer. These are people like any other people who get on a plane flying from Newark to San Francisco, who have settled into a routine flight and are suddenly stunned by a shockingly violent killing and the sight of a young man with a bomb strapped to his waist and holding the wires above his head, screaming unintelligible words.
And as they make calls and reach friends and relatives who tell them about the planes that have hit the World Trade Towers and crashed into the Pentagon, they realize that are not going to land somewhere and get out of this. There is no good ending, and so they must try something. You will probably recognize yourself, or your parents or your daughter, on that plane. And it will make you wonder how you, and they, would react.
Would you huddle in your seat and weep as you said good-bye to your wife? Would your daughter, travelling alone and terrified, call your cell phone and, getting only your voicemail, cry and tell you “I love you and goodbye”? Would you piece together what was happening in a way that nobody else comprehended—planes hitting the World Trade Towers, a plane hitting the Pentagon—and see that there was nothing to do but try to take control of this plane before it hits another target?
In the end, two hours and one minute doesn’t seem like enough.
As the screen goes black with United Flight 93 about to hit the ground, you want more. You want to see how these people’s families got on with their lives; how the air traffic controllers who watched four “heavies” drop from their screens amidst total chaos recovered from their shock and brought the other thousands of planes in the skies to land that day; how the scrambled jets of the National Guard, which could do nothing to stop the four flights from doom, patrolled empty skies in the days to come, while rumors of new attacks swept the country.
Whatever you think of the U.S. response to that day; whatever you think about Iraq, or Saddam, or WMD or anything else since 9/11—put that all away and see this movie while it is still in theaters.
It won’t change anything at all about what you think, but it will make you remember what happened that day in a way nothing else will.
Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up © 2006 Jeff Matthews
The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.