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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Meaning of Courage
by Geoffrey D. Roberts

When United 93 writer/director Paul Greengrass set out to do a film about the 9/11/2001 terror attacks, he knew many Americans were still suffering from what happened on that  unforgettable day. Greengrass questioned his desire to make a movie dramatizing events surrounding this tragedy after only five years had passed and wondered if people would think it was too soon for such a film.

The director and his associate producer Kate Solomon held hours of face-to-face interviews with the families who lost loved ones on United Airlines Flight 93. Greengrass felt they were the only people who could ultimately and appropriately judge whether the timing was right for a 9/11 film. After the decision to go ahead was made, Greengrass and Solomon gave actors biographical data on the passengers or crew members they were to play in order to help them craft their performances. Some of the actors chose not to use this information while others even went out of their way to visit the families involved.

United 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers tried relentlessly to regain control of the plane. Terrorists had commandeered the airliner, killing the pilot and co-pilot and intent on using the aircraft to hit and destroy the U.S. Capitol. Passengers and crew learned from people on the ground that the terrorists were on a suicide mission with two airplanes having hit the World Trade Center and an explosion occurring at the Pentagon.

Ben Sliney (who portrays himself here), the operations manager for the FAA, had just arrived for the day at the National Air Traffic Control Center in Virginia. He is briefed about what to expect this morning: clear skies with restrictions in those areas that President George W. Bush will be flying through and a military exercise temporarily affecting East Coast routes are the only obstacles that would seem to impact an ordinary day for Sliney and the Center.

Boarding has started for Flight 93 which is set to depart from Newark International Airport to San Francisco International Airport. The co-pilot ventures outside and inspects the underside of the aircraft in a routine walk around the plane prior to departure. A flight attendant goes over the secret knock used to gain entry into the cockpit. The door to the aircraft is sealed shut from the outside. There are 15 planes ahead of Flight 93 for take-off -- which leads to a 45-minute delay.

An air traffic controller cannot make contact with American Airlines Flight 11 which is on route from Boston to Los Angeles. The controller heard a strange transmission from the cockpit shortly before losing contact, so he thinks the flight has been hijacked. Another transmission is heard after controllers have been told to keep other planes away from the American Airlines flight. Tapes are pulled to establish what was said. The words "we have planes" are uttered in a foreign accent, and Flight 11 disappears off radar screens. CNN then reports a small plane has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Sliney has a bad feeling about this. He knows from what he sees on the television screen that a small plane could not make such a huge gash in a building.

United Airlines Flight 175 is not responding to air traffic controllers and has now also disappeared from radar screens. That plane hits the South Tower of the World Trade Center. American Airlines Flight 77 has been missing for 25 minutes now. Newscasters begin to report that there was an explosion at the Pentagon. Flight 77 is confirmed to have hit the side of it.

Sliney realizes America is at war with someone and until he knows with whom he must make the unprecedented move of closing America's airspace. Sadly, Flight 93 was not confirmed as one of the hijacked airplanes until after it had spiraled out of control and crashed in a field.

In United 93, Greengrass presents a vivid and accurate portrait of the chaos on the ground and the terror in the air on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. This is one of the best films of the year and should be a 2006 Academy Award contender.

(Released by Universal Studios and rated R for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence.)

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