Director Paul Greengrass’ United 93, from Universal, isn’t the only film detailing the events aboard the sole airliner that didn’t hit its intended target on Sept. 11. The A&E movie Flight 93 (above), releasing this week to DVD, actually beat it to the screen, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from most media reportage.
Directed by Peter Markle, Flight 93 is in every way the lesser “experience” of the two films — for better and for worse — yet certainly no less respectful and possessing of a heart in the right place. It shares with its big screen sibling a mostly unknown if occasionally recognizable cast, and it too plies us with small pedestrian details leading up to liftoff of the titular flight.
Whereas for some viewers United 93 is too painfully antiseptic —
giving us a raw, gritty realism but no lasting personal identification with the
actual individual passengers — Flight 93, tighter in scope, takes the
opposite approach. It introduces characters by name via their boarding passes,
and compacts the correlated events of Sept. 11 into the film’s first 15 minutes,
all in order to spend more time on the plane and have greater leeway to intercut
the action there with more passengers’ desperate, doomed calls to their loved
Flight 93 cannot sustain this emotionality for a myriad of reasons — even though, somewhat manipulatively, everyone safe on the ground seems to be cradling a baby. With the hijackers reduced to more of a minimalist menace, the panic and dread feels artificially sketched; whereas United 93 ratchets the tension and grief-soaked anxiety up to taxing levels by showcasing the clipped, whispering fright in all parties, in Flight 93 the passengers huddle up, football-style, and conduct a dramatic raised-hand vote to storm the cockpit. Still, you can’t help but have your heart catch in your throat given the devastating simplicity of a line like, “Mom, I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked, and I’m calling to say goodbye.”
One of the interesting things for me about both films lies in just the experience of watching either of them with an audience, of sharing in that pain and discomfort with others — be it a hundred people or a single loved one. In a weird way, it’s kind of beautiful, if that makes sense, because no one choosing to view either movie doesn’t know or think on some level that they’re going to be moved by having all those stark real-life memories and their attendant emotions churned up again. You can't enter into it lightly, without care — it's not possible.
For that reason and others, the debate of whether or not it’s “too soon” for Sept. 11 movies is to me a pointless and silly one, the definition of media fire-stoking. What is popular culture if not a reflection of our current mood and zeitgeist — certainly what titillates us, but also too what frightens and unnerves us? Hollywood is rapped all the time — and not always incorrectly — for its vacuousness and indulgence, for making loud, garish films about nothing. Both United 93 and, despite its more limited production means, Flight 93 are responsible films born of the real world. They may not be for everyone, but how can that be assailed?