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United 93

Pandora’s Press Release
Hollywood’s 9/11 Propaganda Docudrama Opens A New Box of Demons
By Cole Smithey


"United 93" is an odd film by any standard. Filmmaker Paul Greengrass (notable for his terrific 2002 docudrama "Bloody Sunday" about the 1972 British Army massacre of 27 civilians in Northern Ireland) wrote and directed what is a disturbingly prosaic piece of dramatic conjecture about one of the most puzzling events of 9/11. As a fictionalized docudrama, "United 93" punctures all suspension-of-disbelief because of the intrinsic absurdness that the mightiest military power on earth couldn’t scramble a dozen squads of F-16 fighter planes to perform aerial escorts for the "11 commercial airliners" believed to be hijacked on 9/11. Greengrass disguises art as journalism by matter-of-factly declaring that United 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at the "heroic" hands of its passengers in spite of the fact that the now famous "crash site" produced not one human corpse or even a single drop of blood.

A somber prologue introduces four young Muslim men praying inside their hotel room in the wee hours on the morning of September 11, 2001. The scene divulges a subtly racist undercurrent that plays out during the film with the thinly concealed hubris that America’s Neocons have benefited from under the guise of false patriotism since 9/11.

In the film’s production notes, Greengrass gives his mission statement: "There are lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11. Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history’s rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context…Filmmakers have a part to play, too, and I believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something much larger than the event itself—the DNA of our times."

"Sometimes" is the key word that absolves Greengrass of his self-imposed responsibility for mapping out any DNA of falsification or rampant government and corporate corruption that permeates every dust particle left behind in the wake of 9/11.


In practice, the filmmaker leverages the contrasting estimable talents of Ken Loach’s devote director of photography Barry Akroyd ("Raining Stones") with three editors—Clare Douglas ("Bloody Sunday"), Christopher Rouse ("The Bourne Supremacy"), and Richard Pearson ("Men In Black II"). His "clear and unflinching" gaze at the "single event" diverts in telling ways from recorded facts. Greengrass gets a performance windfall from Ben Sliney the actual FAA Operations Manager on duty at Herndon, Virginia on 9/11, playing himself with the hard-bitten charisma that comes from years of experience. However, Greengrass still can’t help nudging out dramatic truth when he has Sliney give the order for a "national ground stop" for all air traffic in the country, when, in fact, it was FAA head Jane Garvey who gave that order.

The cell phone/air phone calls are an area of tacit fiction that the auteur fudges with discreet but significant treatment. The actual recorded calls from the "passengers" of United 93 are suspiciously vague and calculated. The calls were never more than a couple of sentences long and share a symmetrical brand of abstract logic that rings false in the context of a hijacked aircraft.

Transcripts of the "calls" reads like answers from a sixth grader cheating on a test he doesn’t know the questions to.

"It’s bad news. I need you to be happy."

"Ted, what can I do? What can I tell the pilot?"

"We’ve been hijacked. He had an Islamic book."

"It’s getting very bad on the plane… the plane is making jerky movements."

These examples taken, from the 9/11 Commission’s Report as referenced in writer/director Dylan Avery’s persuasive documentary "9/11 Loose Change," are telling for their clipped structure and ridiculously short length. They don't convey any of the mile-a-minute patter that a panicked person would use to call for immediate help in a hijack situation.

Greengrass fudges the notable call in which a "passenger" introduces himself to his own mother using his first and last name. The director’s "clear" gaze doesn’t extend to quoting the "actual" air phone dialogue, perhaps because he couldn’t compensate for its inherent falseness. He does however include the caller asking his mother if she believes him when he tells her the plane has been hijacked.


Ultimately, "United 93" is a regurgitation of suspicious media-fueled speculation about events on an airplane that we know very little about. This is a movie that does more to discourage raising questions about what really happened to flight 93 than it does to encourage debate over the bastion of lies that have been fed to the American people.

It is an interesting footnote that United flight 93 was not scheduled to fly on 9/11, and that the plane (tail number N5IUA) was spotted by United Airline’s employee David Friedman on April 10, 2003 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and that the plane is listed as still valid with the FAA. Dylan Avery provided essential information used in this article in his documentary "9/11 Loose Change."

Rated R, 111 mins. (C-)

April 26, 2006 in Drama | Permalink