CULTURE: United They Stood; Mike Davies Seeks the Truth of Flight 93 with Paul Greengrass

The Birmingham Post (England), May 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

CULTURE: United They Stood; Mike Davies Seeks the Truth of Flight 93 with Paul Greengrass


Byline: Mike Davies

When the trailer for United 93, Kent born writer-director Paul Green-grass's film about the 9/11 hijacking of the titular doomed flight, was screened in New York cinemas, many in the audience called out "too soon, too soon".

Cinemas in the Big Apple removed the trailer almost immediately, but given that the film opened at No 2 at the US box office, perhaps it's not premature after all.

"I must have been asked that question 300 times," sighs Greengrass.

"I understand it, but I've never been asked it by a family of 9/11. What they have asked is 'why did it take so long?' I think what we're really asking is 'is it too soon for us?'

"The truth is, when these events happen, whether it's 9/11 or Omagh, we pause for a moment but we're not touched directly by them. We see the families and feel sorry for them as victims. But then, frankly, we want them to go away, because we want to get on with the rest of our lives.

"We want to wait for the World Cup, go to the pub, prepare for our summer holidays. We want our lives unchanged, and you can see that in the response to 7/7.

"But if you're a family whose lives have been destroyed, you rage against that," he passionately continues.

"You refuse to accept the victim-hood. You demand to be heard, you demand that we, untouched by it, address the core questions about political violence' why has this happened and what are we going to do?

"You cannot but be struck by the fact that the American response was to set up the 9/11 Commission. You cannot read that document and not be impressed at their central commitment as a society to answering the question 'why?'

"Yet we, in this country, accept, in this slumbering way, the shameful, shameful document that is the pathetic, pitiful response to 7/7."

Greengrass, who cut his teeth with World in Action and whose other films have concerned the Falklands conflict and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, was finishing his award-winning provocative doc-udrama Bloody Sunday, when 9/11 happened.

He recalls that his immediate reaction was that a film about the shooting of 13 unarmed demonstrators by British soldiers 30 years ago in Derry suddenly seemed somehow irrelevant.

"But then I realised that it was really about how we had responded to the early Provo campaign of political violence, and how we'd got ourselves to this place in early '72, thinking we needed to get tough and that that would fix the problem.

"Of course it absolutely made the problem profoundly worse.

"I'm sure that was one of the reasons why that film had such an international impact because it spoke to that early, post-9/11 world.

"It was around about that time that I began to think what was the point of making something like that if I didn't then address this much more important issue of our times."

From the outset, Greengrass had always seen the fate of United 93, the only one of the four plans not to hit its target, as the story he wanted to tell.

"Because air traffic control delays meant it took off late, by the time the hijack happened, 9/11 was basically all over. The Twin Towers had been hit half an hour before, the Pentagon was being hit as they were being hijacked.

"So it struck me that those 40 passengers were the first people to inhabit our world' the world of 'what can we do and what will be the consequences?'

"They weighed those choices, made a decision and acted upon it. It's a story of immense courage and fortitude and it seemed that would be the thing that would speak to us."

Once his commitments to making The Bourne Supremacy and the film of the Omagh bombings were complete, Greengrass turned his attention to telling the story of United 93.

The question then was how to make a film that would respect the sensitivities of the families involved and arrive at what he terms a "plausible truth" about what happened during those fateful moments between the terrorists taking control of the plane and its plunge into a Pennsylvania field. …

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