At 8:21 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 took off from Newark, N.J., bound for San Francisco. Forty-four people were aboard the plane: 37 passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants. Among the passengers were four Muslim terrorists intent upon hijacking the plane and flying it into the United States Capitol.
The terrorists achieved the first of their goals, killing both pilots, a flight attendant and one passenger in the process of taking control of the 757. But unlike the three other commercial flights hijacked that fateful morning, United 93 would not reach the destination the terrorists sought.
As terrified passengers phoned loved ones, they learned the horrifying fate of the other three planes … and realized they would have to wrest control of the airliner from their assailants if they hoped to avoid a similar one. Though their brave efforts thwarted the terrorists’ ultimate aim, the passengers were unable to prevent the plane from crashing near Shanksville, Pa., at 10:03 that morning.
Using the facts that are known, United 93 dramatically reenacts what happened on the doomed flight that Tuesday morning—as well as depicting the confused air-traffic controllers, military personnel and government officials desperately trying to figure out how to respond.
United 93 is a story of stomach-wrenching horror and tremendous courage. As the flight’s passengers piece together what’s really happening, several decide to fight back. Some of the men recruit others for the counterassault and work with the flight attendants to find anything—forks, wine bottles, hot water—that they can use to defend themselves. They’re willing to sacrifice their lives if it means regaining control of the hijacked airliner.
The film’s most heartrending scenes picture petrified passengers furtively using their cell phones and the plane’s air phones to say farewell to loved ones. Mark Bingham calls his mother and tells her, “I want to let you know that I love you.” Honor Elizabeth Wainio tells her mother, “Mom, we’re being hijacked. I just called to say goodbye.” For me, these moments were powerful, poignant reminders never to take my friends and family for granted.
A similar—and tragic—moment comes early in the film when one of the hijackers also calls to say “I love you” to someone (presumably a family member). This scene is one of several that depict the hijackers not only as deeply misguided religious zealots, but as real human beings as well. That characterization in no way tries to excuse their actions. But it does show them as three-dimensional people, not just clichéd Muslim radicals. In the same way, these men’s own fear and agitation regarding what they’re about to do is palpable in some scenes; one of them, who hesitates to initiate the plan, perhaps seems to be having second thoughts about going through with it.
The film opens in the two hotel rooms of the four terrorists, where they’re shown reading the Quran and offering their morning prayers. The hijackers pray frequently, especially at stressful moments. Throughout United 93, they’re depicted as deeply devoted to their faith. After successfully taking over the plane, one of them says, “We’re in control. Thanks be to God.” As the plane goes down, a terrorist repeats the phrase “Allah Ackbar” (“God is great”) several times.
On their trip to the airport, a “God Bless America” sign is visible. After the hijacking begins, a scene shows the terrorists praying, shifts to two different passengers reciting the Lord’s prayer, and ends with the Muslim men’s prayers. Passenger Tom Burnett phones his wife and tells her, “Pray, just pray, Deena.”
In the Newark airport, one of the terrorists pauses briefly next to an advertisement that shows a woman in a revealing swimsuit.
At the onset of the hijacking, a passenger is stabbed in the chest. Several scenes show his blood-drenched shirt before he dies. The terrorists also stab and kill pilot Jason Dahl and first officer Leroy Homer. It’s implied that they cut the throat of senior flight attendant Deborah Welsh. (All of these scenes happen very quickly.) The hijackers later remove the pilots’ bodies from the cockpit.
Several male passengers rush the two terrorists outside the cockpit, overpowering them. They beat one of the hijackers several times with a fire extinguisher. And they choke the other one. The passengers then use a food cart to smash their way into the cockpit, where they try, unsuccessfully, to wrestle control away from the terrorists flying the plane.
As Flight 93 goes down, we see the ground rushing toward the cockpit, followed by a black screen. The plane’s impact isn’t depicted, nor do we see any film footage of the crater caused by the crash.
Air-traffic controllers in Newark watch with horror as one of the hijacked jets crashes into the World Trade Center. We witness the impact from across the Hudson River, as they did.
As it becomes clear that terrorists have successfully hijacked multiple planes, characters at the air-traffic control centers swear frequently. They take God’s or Jesus’ name in vain about 30 times (including at least four instances of “g–d–n”). The f- and s-words are each used half-a-dozen times.
A passenger jokes with a flight attendant about ordering a scotch.
A terrorist is shown shaving his chest; from behind, we see him also trimming his pubic hair. His actions are apparently in obedience to a command given by one of their leaders, Mohammed Atta, to remove all body hair in preparation for the Muslim martyrs’ promised entrance into paradise.
The arrival of United 93 on the big screen has provoked a great deal of discussion about whether America is ready to revisit Sept. 11, 2001. And while no one can claim a definitive answer to the question, it’s a discussion well worth having.
Watching it (and well after), I felt the same sense of shock and numbness that gripped me then. Knowing the tragic outcome of that horrible day lends the opening scenes—which draw us in by showing pilots and passengers preparing for a normal morning—a sense of encroaching dread. We know what’s coming, and they do not. That foreboding feeling only intensifies as the story moves inexorably toward its violent conclusion.
One of my concerns going into United 93 was that the filmmakers might somehow exploit the events of that day. As I watched, those fears were allayed. Instead of injecting unnecessary melodrama into an already engrossing event, director Paul Greengrass has crafted an almost understated film. Indeed, his fictional take on what might have happened onboard Flight 93 feels so eerily realistic that it has a documentary-like quality at times.
That realism is aided by the fact that many people in the film play themselves, including Ben Sliney, chief of air-traffic control operations at the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Va. Sliney said of his role in the crisis, “Most of the time I was trying to feverishly figure out what was going on and what I could do about it.” The result is gripping—so much so that I found myself irrationally hoping that the passengers would be able to pull the plane out of the dive the terrorists had induced. For once, I found myself longing for a Hollywood ending.
Sliney did note, however, one thing that was exaggerated for the film: profanity. “They asked me to swear, which I customarily don’t do. … I wanted on that day to be calm and authoritative for all the people on the floor. In a stressful situation, they don’t want to see the person in charge getting excited.” That added vulgarity is perhaps the only obvious box-office concession in a story that in most other ways is not typical Tinseltown fare.
United 93 concludes not with images of an explosive fireball or smoldering wreckage, but with a black screen. And in doing so it respectfully challenges us to remember that dark day. It’s a sentiment echoed by David Beamer, father of Todd Beamer, who uttered the famous words, “Let’s roll.” “Clearly there are people who aren’t ready to see this,” the elder Beamer said, “I certainly understand that, and that’s their decision to make. But we must not forget.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.