Big gulp of reality on the big screen |

Big gulp of reality on the big screen

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily

On Sept. 11, 2001, and for many days and weeks following, I’m sure I’m not the only one whose imagination swarmed with appalling possibilities of what it would have been like to be on one of those hijacked airplanes.While two planes hit the World Trade Center and another dove into the Pentagon, at the time, it brought a small twinge of relief to learn that the fourth crashed into the middle of nowhere – near Shanksville, Penn.

It wasn’t until later that people began to wonder what happened on that plane that prevented it from hitting its target, presumably the White House. Later, as the details unraveled, phone conversations between the passengers on flight 93 and their families and loved ones told a horrific story of three men with knives, one with a bomb. A couple people, passengers whispered into their Airphones, had been stabbed already. They didn’t know who was flying the plane. The phone calls, in all of their brevity, seethed with fear, confusion, suspense and a realization of what was in store for their flight. Upon hearing about three other planes and the smoldering landmarks they’d left behind, it sunk in for flight 93 passengers that there was little chance of survival. According to reports of the actual conversations, passengers told their loved ones, “We’re going to do something.”In “United 93,” director and writer Paul Greengrass (who also wrote “Bloody Sunday” and directed “The Bourne Supremacy”), had access to these phone conversations and transmissions from individuals on the flight, but he clearly had to work in a lot of the details. In doing so, he paints as realistic a picture of what probably happened on that plane as anyone could from the fierce whispers, hushed good-byes and muffled screams heard from soundboards unearthed at the crashsite.”United 93,” as one might guess, is not comfortable to watch. The suspense begins from the start, with the leering normalcy of passengers flipping through newspapers, chatting on phones, giving in to drowsiness while sitting at the gate in Newark, N.J., waiting to board flight 93.

Anyone who’s done a lot of plane travel will automatically recognize the old lady who asks for a glass of water to take some pills as the flight waits to take off on the runway, the two guys who strike up an amicable but meaningless round of smalltalk over their laptops, and the teenage girl who dozes against a window with a muted bass pounding from her knotted earphones. Meanwhile, four hijackers, who are seen praying, shaving their body hair, and slipping knives into their belts before the airport scenes, sit on the plane, looking for all the world like any other passenger. As flight 93 and its unwitting passengers and calculating hijackers go through the familiar routine of being delayed on the runway and then smoothly taking flight, “United 93” delivers a picture of helplessness from surrounding air traffic control centers as they watch the green dots representing flights vanish from their computer panels. To say that every entity from the Federal Aviation Association to each branch of the military and U.S. government was unprepared for the events of 9/11 is a glaring understatement, and “United 93,” while not shoving this message down our throats, depicts it in raw form. Controllers uselessly call through their mouthpieces for a response – “Come in, American flight 11. “Are you there, United flight 175?” “Copy, United flight 93.” Their supervisors helplessly make phone calls to their supervisors, who helplessly make calls to the military, who helplessly try to get authority “to engage” the hijacked planes from our own Mr. President, who in turn, is mysteriously MIA.

Everything, from American flight 11 hitting the north tower of the Trade Center to United 93 crashing into the ground southeast of Pittsburgh, happened under an hour and a half – between 8:45 and 10:10 a.m. eastern time on that fateful morning.In 111 minutes, “United 93” gives us a forceful, deadpan, alarmingly realistic portrait of that chain of events.Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or

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