Magazine article The Spectator

Past Tense

Magazine article The Spectator

Past Tense

Article excerpt

United 93 15, selected cinemas

As I'm sure you are aware, United Airlines' Flight 93 was the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11 -- the one that did not reach its target. I shall ignore the internet-based argument over what happened to United 93 in its final minutes (did it crash into the ground or explode in the air? ) since this film is a telling rather than an investigation. We may ask questions when we emerge from the cinema, but no one is asking questions in the film.

In fact, names you will not hear mentioned during the course of the film include Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'eda, Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Afghanistan. No one but the hijackers has any idea what's going on; the attack, quite literally, falls out of the sky. 'A hijacking?' queries someone at the Federal Aviation Administration, when the first plane stops 'squawking' to air-traffic control. 'We haven't had one of those for 40 years!' The military, once alerted to the situation, shouts repeatedly, 'We have a real world situation!' It seems no one could quite believe what they were hearing.

To recreate the 90-minute journey of United 93, Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, The Bourne Supremacy) has constructed what he calls a 'plausible truth', based on the information he has been able to access:

details of flight recordings and from public records, interviews with families of the passengers, with members of the 9/11 Commission, with flight controllers and with military personnel. Mohammed Atta's written instructions for the mission were, we are told in the production notes, given to the actors cast as the hijackers.

It doesn't stop there -- Greengrass is determined to treat style and content with equal responsibility. Military specialists and air-traffic controllers (we spend some time on the ground as well as in the air), commercial air pilots, flight attendants -- all are scattered among the cast of actors. The head of the FAA command centre, Ben Sliney, was cast as himself. He was the man who gave the order that morning to clear American skies of nearly 4,500 aircraft, and here he is in the film doing it again. Among the actors on the aeroplane there are no 'names'. The passengers are just a collection of ordinary-looking people.

Of course, everyone who goes to see the film will already know how the story ends.

This foreknowledge gives rise to an awful and accumulating dread which began, for me, the moment the film made its sombre beginning -- in a hotel room in New York, where the hijackers are saying their prayers. …

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