When Paul Greengrass's dramatisation of the fate of the one plane not to reach its target on 11th September 2001 was released five years after the event some questioned whether enough time had elapsed for a film like it to be made. That same year saw the release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Centre, which I haven't seen, but I suspect that the documentary integrity of United 93 makes it a film that was actually timely rather than mis-timed. There has been a steady stream of 'post 9/11' artistic interpretations since then, in fact that phrase has become so clichéd that is risks taking away from the impact of the event itself. Watching this film now eight years later it brought back all the confusion and incredulity of the day, brilliantly capturing I think the utter unpreparedness of America in the face of such a paradigm shift in terrorism.
Because we know exactly where the story ends there is almost a double dramatic irony in watching events unfold. The slow progress made by each passenger to the plane, the workaday normality for the air traffic controllers, the sense of unease as the last passenger sprints to make it in time to the door, these are all fairly obvious; but the confidence is what is about to be shattered. When the first hint of a hijacking is revealed the air-traffic controllers almost joke about how long it's been since they've had to deal with a hostage situation, they're almost fishing out the manual on how to deal with this kind of thing completely unaware that the hijackers have no intention of landing, bargaining or explaining anything. Because so many things seemed to happen on that one day the chronology of events is something I still haven't quite managed to pin down. Greengrass exploits this and the stuttering relay of information to show the total inability to comprehend and react to the unfolding tragedy. After the film finishes a piece of text informs us that the military only became aware that the flight had been hijacked four minutes after it had crashed in Pennsylvania. The military confusion and communication breakdown is total: planes leave without weapons, fly in the wrong direction, clarification of the rules of engagement is always being asked for. It is stressed that the final say lies with the President and I couldn't help but remember that blank expression on his face when he was told of the second plane, sat on that small chair, as children read a story.
For those on the plane, after the initial shock and violence of the hijacking, it is amazing how quickly they galvanize and start thinking about their situation. Information is everything. The change in direction, the spotting of the pilots down on the ground, the sense that the bomb that is strapped to the waist of one of the hijackers may not be real; these set them investigating. Once they have news of the attack on the twin towers of course everything has changed. The film is impressively put together, well acted by pleasingly unknown faces and the only question I had was what can be learned from watching it? The unprecedented nature of the attacks softens any kind of blow that might be struck at the reactions of those on the ground. The passengers on the plane seem not so much heroic as utterly human in their response. The big question mark lies over the hijackers of whom we learn little about, beyond the mechanics of the operation. It is a question mark which still remains in place, in large part, today.