4 Stars – Inspiring

When Americans experienced the attacks of 9/11, we had no idea we were the target of such hatred.  That obviously religious people would be compelled by their leaders to violently take the lives of both young and old by turning our largest commercial planes into weapons was not even within the realm of our imaginations.  The airlines, military and government officials were unprepared for such action and used the old category of “highjacking” when the planes were commandeered.  It is this naïve condition that sets the stage for Paul Greengrasses’ portrayal of what occurred on the fourth plane that was the terrorists’ only unsuccessful attempt on that infamous day.

            This riveting telling of this horror within our nation begins with the filmmaker’s weaving together of the intense early morning religious prayers of the terrorists and the relaxed early morning traveling routines of the passengers.  While most films of this nature take us into the lives of three or four of the passengers so that we can identify with their pain, this film allows us to enter into the experience as another passenger.  We know no names.  We hear shallow conversations.  We receive our complimentary breakfasts. Even knowing the final outcome of the plane’s journey that day, we enter into the social milieu that undoubtedly was present that day.

            Contrasting this normal superficial community on the plane with the intense, deeply disturbed and disturbing intentions of the terrorists is powerful.  Recognizing that these four men have become convinced by their religious leaders that they are serving God by their suicides and murders, we watch them pray, read the Koran and angrily, violently kill a passenger in their first-class cabin, the pilot and copilot, and attempt to fly the plane into the Capitol building.

            When the passengers try to phone for help, they soon realize that they are part of a concerted effort to attack our nation and that other planes have hit the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.  Knowing that they are not just another high-jacking but have been turned into a flying bomb, some take matters into their own hands while others are paralyzed by fear and are immobilized.  This includes calling their families and telling them that they love them or pleading for help.  In a particularly poignant scene, we witness the highjackers praying together in the front of the plane and then witness the passengers reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the back.

            While it is understandable why those on United 93 might be helpless to do anything, the reality of what was happening on the ground with both the civilian and military flight controllers shows us that in the midst of the unfolding horror, most people find it hard to grasp the true depth of any horror when it is occurring.  In a docudrama style, the actual FAA and military flight commanders who were present on 9/11 agreed to play themselves in this film, admitting it was almost impossible to take action. 

            United 93 takes you through the actual events of the highjacking in real time and give the viewer a complete picture of all the events that occurred during that fateful 51 minutes.  Most striking was the inability of the military to help.  Even though the FAA had alerted the Air Force 5 minutes into the highjacking, the military jets didn’t take off to respond until 2 minutes after United 93 had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

            Though this film is not for the sensitive viewer, it is a film of great importance.  The messages are several and communicated powerfully:  Not all religious leaders are leading their people to love others;  No government can protect its people from suicidal terrorists and we must be ready to defend ourselves if possible;  We can be deeply harmed by the choices of others even if we are living good lives.

            “United 93” is reverent in its telling of this story and does not overly dramatize the horrific events of that day.  In many ways, we see ordinary people responding in ordinary ways in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.  No one chooses to be heroic, but seek to comprehend an incomprehensible act.  It is here where the film makes its greatest statement, showing us that even the seemingly small choices we make can sometimes provide inspirational solace to people we may never know.



  1. The portrayal of Islamic terrorists is straightforward.  Do you believe that this is an aberrant form of the Moslem faith or intrinsic to the religion?  Why do you answer as you do?
  2. When the subtitles translate the prayers of the terrorists the word “God” is used for the Islamic word “Allah.”  Why do you believe the film-makers decided to do this?  Would you have translated it the same way?
  3. The hesitancy of the leader and pilot of the terrorist group was part of their failure.  Why do you think he hesitated?  Was it significant within the telling of the story that he also called someone and told them he loved them? 
  4. The future of our world is uncertain when terrorists are willing to kill normal people going about their usual day’s routines.  Do you believe this strategy will be rejected or will become more common throughout our world?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 4 STARS, INSPIRING.