Heart-wrenching `United 93' offers powerful portrait of courage


The silence told the story.

Couples held hands as they headed to the theater exits. Seven friends had filled up one row, sharing jokes and stories before the movie began. As the credits rolled, they simply turned around and filed out. Not a word was exchanged.

A man who came to the United States from Hungary 18 years ago had said a few hours earlier, as if he wanted the whole world to know, that he was proud to be a U.S. citizen. He, too, simply left.

A few moviegoers stood quietly watching as white type on a black screen told them what they had known for nearly five years -- that no one on United Flight 93 had survived the crash in the Pennsylvania countryside.

United 93, a movie that some argued should not be shown and that many feared seeing, is really about one thing -- courage. That of ordinary people working to overcome the hijackers and stop them from killing many more people.

The passengers learned from cell phone conversations with friends and family that planes had already hit the World Trade Center. They knew another landmark must be next. The public record is excruciatingly clear on this.

We all know that the success of a group of passengers cost them and everyone else aboard United Flight 93 their lives. Would those of us sitting in our comfortable seats eating overpriced popcorn have been so brave? Would we have been a fighter risking all, or would we have cowered in a corner hoping that others saved us? Would "let's roll" have been our call to define our character in action?

While the movie no doubt took some liberties with what actually happened inside the Boeing 757 on Sept. 11, 2001, it gives us a searing glimpse into what it really means to be a hero. In an age when that term is often applied to an athlete who scores the winning basket or hits a tie-breaking home run, United 93 reminds us what courage truly is.

"We've got to do something," one passenger said to the others. And do something they certainly did, knowing full well that they would most likely die in the process.

That is a lesson that should never be forgotten.

The silence that engulfed the moviegoers like a fog was a reminder that to relive that September day, whether by Hollywood production, book or news footage, is to still be shocked and deeply saddened.

Shocked that such an attack could happen in a country that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on defense each year. Shocked that 19 men and their accomplices could develop or be brainwashed with such a hatred of the United States that they would take on the most audacious suicide mission. Shocked that, despite all the wars and innocent lives lost, man could still be capable of such cruelty toward his fellow man.

Tears flowed on the screen as passengers made frantic goodbye phone calls to family members. Tears were present in the eyes of moviegoers as they felt the passengers' pain and obviously wondered what they might do in the same heart-wrenching situation.

Tears would certainly also come to any person who pondered a thought that became part of the national conversation in the months after 9/11: Whom would you call knowing the plane was going to crash -- mother or wife, father or girlfriend, daughter or son, boyfriend or best gal pal?

An impossible choice. But one that has to be made.

The passengers on United 93 made the impossible choices.

The movie has no recognizable stars, for an obvious reason. Headlines do not make the hero; action does.

A powerful message and memorial, indeed.

Richard Pretorius teaches journalism classes at Catholic and Shenandoah universities. His e-mail is rpretorius@aol.com.

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