Into the darkness

Film - A meticulous 9/11 recreation is full of everyday horrors, writes <strong>Victoria Moore</stro

One of the great clichés about 9/11 was that watching the day's events unfold was like watching a disaster movie. Cinema has exposed us again and again to the sight of iconic landmarks and major cities being destroyed or threatened by space invaders or tidal waves or evil masterminds. When the explosions and the devastation started appearing on actual news broadcasts, it was hard to see it as the stuff of reality and not a big-budget sound stage somewhere in California. This time, however, there were no last-minute solutions, no clever counter-plots, and certainly no day-saving heroes there to rescue the world.

It's no shock, then, that at times it feels as if Paul Greengrass's United 93 veers perilously close to stan-dard disaster-movie territory. The first fictionalised account of 9/11 to be released - Oliver Stone's World Trade Center follows close behind - tells the story of the one hijacked plane that didn't make its target, apparently brought down in a Pennsylvanian field by passengers who had heard the news of the twin towers attack via airphone and mobile, and were determined not to let the same thing happen to them. As might be expected from the no-nonsense director of Bloody Sunday and Omagh, the film thankfully does not end with a Stars and Stripes fluttering nobly in a sunset breeze, nor with scenes of distressed relatives and a smouldering Ground Zero.

Greengrass has tried to free the film from saccharine characterisation - viewers are told very little about each passenger, allowing actions to speak for them - while the recreation is meticulous. When the air-traffic controllers gasp as smoke starts billowing from the World Trade Center, you gasp with them. As the passengers conspire behind their seats to launch a counter-attack on the hijackers, you can feel the claustrophobia of recycled air and tray tables against knees. Yet for all its desperate questing after authenticity - interviews were conducted with air-traffic controllers and friends and relatives of the dead; the pilot, Captain Jason Dahl, is played by the real-life United pilot J J Johnson; the set features a rebuilt Boeing 757 - it still fixates on the idea of heroism and cannot help but fall into the pattern of an aviation thriller. Just because the man who says "I have a bad feeling about this" is the real Ben Sliney, head of the Federal Aviation Administration on that terrible day, doesn't make the line seem any less of a disaster-movie staple.

And yet, United 93 has certainly not turned the events of that day into palatable entertainment. For Greengrass, the question about this film was whether the timing was right. In the production notes he asserts that it was, because the families of the dead said "yes". Somehow that doesn't seem enough in the light of such a public tragedy, for the other major question about this film is: why would anyone want to go and see it? Once you have ruled out entertainment - and there can be nobody who will settle down in a cinema seat to watch the terrible inevitability of the on-screen events without some sense of dread - you have to start wondering if it is somehow supposed to be good for the viewer, if it follows the patterns of "healing" and "understanding" that certain film-makers and audiences crave.

The answer is no. Even with the interviews and the phone transcripts, it's still impossible to know exactly what happened aboard that flight. And while there is no doubt that a plan was hatched to overwhelm the hijackers and take control of the plane, and that passenger Todd Beamer (David Alan Basche) uttered the famous words "let's roll", the queasy sense remains that this is ultimately wish-fulfilment. It seems like no accident that the German wine merchant on board is the coward, in favour of appeasement and sitting quietly instead of all-American action heroism. And while few would yearn for a sympathetic portrayal of the hijackers - Greengrass is admirably unabashed about linking their religion and their acts of terrorism - it's noticeable that their subtitles seem to fade away as the film progresses.

It's a testament to Greengrass's skill that watching these people struggle for their lives leaves you feeling like an intruder. What might be therapeutic for the families is not perhaps meant for public consumption. After all, few things are more private than the last minutes of a life.

It is no wonder, then, that the most effective parts of the film are not the horrors of the flight's final moments, but the opening scenes based upon the undeniable, documented truth: the mundane mechanics of that morning. The passen-ger who just makes the flight on time, the plane door shutting firmly behind him; the breakfast service and the cross- checking; the flight attendants (played by real-life United staff Trish Gates and Nancy McDoniel) chatting flatly about reading magazines and wondering if there are any more sugars left in first class. The normal processes of flying, tempered only by the viewers' knowledge that four of the men waiting in the departure lounge are the hijackers, looking their victims in the eye.

It was a day when the language of air travel would never be the same again. That is a point Greengrass makes with chilling precision. After the doors of United 93 lock, however, the rest is darkness.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, False dawn for democracy