United 93: Narrative, Characters, Politics

A socially-aware filmmaker, Paul Greengrass has made provocative movies about the impact of terrorism in Northern Island in Bloody Sunday and Omagh, racial violence in the Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and one soldier’s abandonment in Resurrected.
And now he focuses his cameras on 9/11, the day that forever changed America and the world.

In United 93, Greengrass creates a gripping, provocative drama that tells the story of the passengers, crew, and the flight controllers who watched in horror as United Airlines Flight 93 became the fourth hijacked plane on the day of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil: September 11, 2001.

As writer and director, Greengrass explores the events of this day by telling the story of a single flight and the ordinary, random sampling of flight crew, businessmen, wives, grandparents, students and others bound for San Francisco aboard a Boeing 757.

In the course of the 90 minutes that the plane was aloft, the world below entered a new and violent age, viewed through a fog that slowly dissipated to reveal that America itself was under attack.

The result is a trenchant studychronicled and filmed in real timeof the incendiary collision of modern day and old word, and the courage that was born from such a crucible.

Powerful Enigma

One of the reasons why United 93 exerts such a powerful hold on our imagination is precisely because we don’t know exactly what happened. Who among us doesn’t think about that day and wonder how it must have been and how we might have reacted

Two Goals

We all approached the subject matter with the utmost sensitivity, keeping two goals at the forefront of our minds: To dignify the memory of those the actors were portraying and to arrive at a believable truth of what happened during the 91-minute flight.

The Right Timing

Since that autumn day nearly five years ago, I have been intent upon telling a story of the epochal events of 9/11, with the question being, ‘At what point is it O.K. to put such a painful truth on the screen

Families’ Response

We were informed with interviews from more than 100 family members and friend of the 40 fallen passengers and crew. The right time was when the families said, ‘Yes.’

Hollywood Tradition

There are all sorts of films to make. We make films to divert us, to entertain us and to make us laugh, to take us to fantasy worlds and to make us understand love. But also, there’s a place for films that explore the way the world is. Hollywood has a long and developed track record of makes those types of films as well.

Passengers’ Dilemmas

In examining the story of United 93, we see, in shocking microcosm and within the span of a mere half-hour, the challenges that now face our world as a whole. Forty ordinary people had 30 minutes to confront the reality of the way that we’re living now, decide on the best course of action and act. They were the first people to inhabit the post 9/11 world, at a time when the rest of us were watching television dumbstruck, unable to understand what was going on.

Making Choices

At that moment, those people onboard that airplane knew very wellthey could see exactly what they were dealing withand were faced with a dreadful choice. Do we sit here and do nothing and hope for the best, hope it turns out all right Or do we do something about it And if so, what can we do

It seems to me that those are the two choices that face us and have faced us ever since that day. When you look at what happened on that airplane, you can see that there was a debate, an anguished debate in the most terrible of circumstances. That group of people weighed those choices, made a decision and acted upon it. And I think that if we look at what happened, we find a story of immense courage and fortitude. Those people were very, very brave. But we also find wisdom.

Pitching a 21-Page Treatment

I discussed the idea with producer Lloyd Levin, namely, to use the United 93 as a focal point, a prism through which to view the events of the day, to give the audience an extraordinary way into 9/11. I then sat down and, drawing on my previous work and research, composed a document that included my feeling and ideas about the project, which eventually became a 21-page treatment. It contained my reasons for making the film, as well as a time-coded, scene-by-scene plot, telling the general story of the morning, as viewed by those in the flight towers and centers on the ground and those aboard the plane itself. This, in turn, was used to pitch the project. Eventually, production and distribution deals were secured in the summer of 2005.

Not a Neat Film

The aim to keep the story among the flight controllers and the flight’s passengers and crew was intentional. It’s not a film with neat characters arcs. What it does is pick up 44 individuals as they congregate at the airport for a plane journey, follow them as they enter the plane, and take their 90-minute journey in real time, cutting away only to the various air traffic control centers that follow their progress, on whose screens the entire horror of the full 9/11 operation is played out.

Involving the Families

The families were kept involved all through the production of United 93. They were notified once casting had been completed and were sent a full cast list and a picture of the actors who would portray their family members. Some of the actors personally met with the families, while others got in touch on the phone.

We also sent bi-weekly newsletters, which kept the families informed of the production’s progress and brought them inside the filming process with articles about my methods of filming and things like set construction, sound recording and other aspects of moviemaking.

Open Communication at All Times

I also recorded a video message for the families that was viewable in a private accessible area of the web site. The result was an open channel of communication between filmmakers and families, which not only kept all mindful of the film’s goals, but also allowed for an ongoing exchange of information, to the point where some of the families have taken to call United 93 ‘our film.’

Haunting Last Image

The final image still haunts me: A physical struggle for the controls of a gasoline-fueled 21st-century flying machine between a band of suicide religious fanatics and a group of innocents drawn at random from amongst us all. I think of it often. In a way, it’s really a struggle for our world today.