Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

United 93


At 8:42 AM on September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 took off from Newark Airport headed for San Francisco. Aboard were 40 human beings (33 passengers, 7 crew) and four men who looked just like human beings but were actually monsters. Shortly afterward, shouting “Allahu akbar!” (which in the past has translated as “God is great!” but lately has often meant “God is an asshole, and I am a turd squeezed out of it!”), these monsters—and note their names, everybody, and spit when you hear them: Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami, Saeed al-Ghamdi—took over the plane, and 81 minutes later the plane crashed nose-down in a field in Pennsylvania. Shortly after that, the four came before Allah, expecting their dozen six-packs of virgins in Paradise. Allah spit in their faces and ordered them buried upside-down in boiling pigshit, there to spend eternity, immortal, unable to die. Djinni crap on their bare upturned feet. I intend to visit them when I die. Maybe with a feather. Hope they’re all ticklish.

All that last is conjecture, of course, and so is much of this movie, but every frame of it is plausible. Hell, it’s way beyond plausible. No one will ever know exactly what went down in those 81 minutes, beyond the transcripts of the phone calls made by many passengers. We know the monsters knifed some people to death before the crash. We must presume they killed or mortally injured the pilots. And we know a group of passengers attempted to re-take the plane. One of the most harrowing scenes in a thoroughly harrowing movie is the depiction of the struggle in the cockpit. Those places are small. There’s a hundred buttons you don’t want to fuck with. Imagine five or six people in there, armed with table knives and forks and whatever else they can improvise, all trying to wrestle this Muslim fanatic bent on death away from the controls. I don’t know if a SWAT team could have done it, but these people tried. All glory and honor to them.

What is not conjecture is the scenes on the ground, in various civilian and military control rooms. Many of the people here are playing themselves, and it is a tribute to the director that I couldn’t tell which ones they were. None of the actors seem like actors at all, and none of the real people rings a single false note. They are recreating what they did on that awful day, and are completely at ease with it.

I can’t praise this film too highly. Paul Greengrass and his production designers were obsessive about detail. It all looks exactly as if a documentary film crew was there to record it all, both on the ground and in the air. (I can attest to its accuracy; more about that in a moment.) I was worried that it would be in some way a cash-in on the misery and suffering of that day, but it never felt that way. It was done with the knowledge and approval of the families of the dead, and some of the supplementary material on the DVD shows some touching scenes. The actor playing one man broke down in tears when introduced to the man’s mother.

And oddly enough (I suppose because we’re nearing the 5th anniversary), after we finished watching, Lee was channel-surfing and came across the rival production, the made-for-TV Flight 93. I watched it for five minutes or so and that was all I could stand without gagging. It was everything that United 93 was not, sloppy and saccharine and shamelessly tugging on the heartstrings. Yuck.

Now, as to the accuracy …

In about 1980, courtesy of the MGM research department, I was a guest for a day at the Oakland Air Region Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). I was doing background for Millennium, which involves the collision of two jumbo jets at the beginning of the movie. I was more than a little nervous, as the cause of the collision was going to be computer failure and human error by an air traffic controller. Was this really something I wanted to talk about to the guys who actually did it?

Not to worry. The director and all the ATCs were eager to point out that my thesis was not only plausible, but a disaster waiting to happen. I was shown everything in great detail. The computer running it all, I was informed, was made in the 1960s. It was technology more than 20 years out of date. It used tubes, if you can imagine that. You couldn’t get them in the US anymore, nobody made them. They had to go to Poland when one burned out. The system crashed twice while I was there, once for 5 minutes, once for 30. When that happened they went to a backup system that was 1950s technology!

These were the guys juggling thousands of planes every day, full of trusting, unaware passengers. It was a stressful job for inadequate pay, they were seriously overworked, burn-out was frequent, double shifts were common. They were pissed off about it, and wanting to get the word out any way they could, even through as humble a messenger as myself, hence the cooperation.

Not long after that their union, PATCO, walked out. Ronald Reagan fired them all. Many see that as the beginning of the long decline of union power that is still going on.

Now here’s the point of all that: The ARTCC depicted in this film is identical in all ways to the one I visited in 1980. I was stunned! I knew that replacement and upgrading of computers and monitoring screens had been proceeding slowly (some were saying, not at all) … but it is flabbergasting in these days of laptops with 200 gigabyte hard drives and high resolution flat screens that the FAA is still using the same shit they were using in 1965! I don’t know what kind of computers were running the show, behind the scenes, but I’d bet you that they are far less powerful than the machine you are reading this on. This is what they’re talking about when they mention our degrading national infrastructure, not just bridges and highways and sewers, and nobody’s doing much about it, and it’s fucking criminal.

Enough of that. Go see this movie. It will be hard to watch, but we all must remember.