The Making Of 'United 93'

Director Paul Greengrass thinks his film sheds light on what happened to that flight on Sept. 11, 2001

April 24, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Paul Greengrass, the British writer-director of the excitingly intelligent big-screen docudrama United 93, looks and sounds like a campus star from 35 years ago. He's got the shaggy hair, the furry, resonant voice and the Russian-revolutionary spectacles, and he cuts the right profile, tall and shambling yet also broad-shouldered and sturdy. He combines inner fire with lucidity and an air of ongoing challenge, like a guest speaker who'd fill a hall and leave his crowds stomping for more.

United 93, the story of the hijacking of United's Flight 93 on 9/11 and the heroic revolt of the passengers against terrorist assassins, began generating controversy as soon as its trailers hit theaters.

Greengrass immediately acknowledges the outrage his film (opening Friday) roused long before anyone saw it. "The question, `Is it too soon for this film?' is valid," he says. "It's even the right question, but only if it becomes `Is the film good enough?'"

By "good" he means "not just is it a good film, but is it worthy in its attempt at truthfulness and in its moral purpose? The bar will be held high for us, and that's right, too: we're dealing with a recent, painful event."

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States concluded, "We are sure the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the Capitol or the White House from destruction." Everyone on board died when passengers overpowered the hijackers and the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Greengrass, born in England 50 years ago, can't keep his emotional commitment to the Flight 93 passengers from breaking through his outward calm. Lounging in a faux-Asian hotel room like a graceful bull in a graceless china shop, he speaks of "our democracy" as someone who's loved America since he first visited at age 18.

Greengrass says that "no fair-minded person" could read the 9/11 Commission report and not be impressed by "its qualities of citizenship made flesh, including accountability. I'm sure the commission didn't get to the bottom of everything or get every detail absolutely right, but their animating spirit is what's extraordinary about this country."

Although Greengrass' previous movie, The Bourne Supremacy, gave him some financial clout, he didn't see United 93 as "a Hollywood star-vehicle film." He cast character actors and non-professionals and made it for roughly $17 million to $18 million.

The robust sensitivity of his approach persuaded most of the passengers' families to lend their wisdom and support. The "idea" behind the film wasn't a notion Greengrass held beforehand about what happened on 9/11. It was a concept of what he could gain in understanding from those who endured heart-shriveling losses or kept working for the common good despite their shock and suffering on that day. He reached out to Flight 93 families, to the Pentagon, and to civilian air traffic controllers. Many military officers and civilian controllers play themselves - notably Ben Sliney, who made unprecedented decisions on his first day as operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Herndon, Va., because his first day was 9/11.

"I gathered all of us together, in London," Greengrass says, "because I thought it was important not to make the film in the United States." He wanted to forge a close relationship in a fresh atmosphere among people of "all different backgrounds." Pilots and flight attendants, air traffic controllers and soldiers. "We would spend six to eight weeks in London exploring 9/11: What happened, what it meant and what it means today," he says.

They viewed it "through the prism of the air traffic control system" and emerged with a tale that pictured tremendous individual strength and professionalism stymied by dated procedures and woefully insufficient planning and communication. Pundits have debated whether audiences will pay to see an event that they think they witnessed as it happened. But Greengrass says it's astonishing "how some crucial things about the story are just not known. I think if you took a poll of Americans today, a tremendous number of people would tell you they believe that the military actually shot down this airplane and covered it up. It's all over the Internet.

"Well, the military didn't, for the simple reason that the military didn't even know about Flight 93 until four minutes after it crashed and there wasn't a fighter plane within 100 miles. I don't mean any disrespect to conspiracy theorists; they tend to be people who are curious and skeptical and ask the `what-if?' questions. But if so many of us believe that our democracy is so dysfunctional - what does that say about the quality of trust amongst us?"

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