Cinema tackles terror: Courage on a day of death

A film that chronicles the hijacking of the fourth airliner on 11 September 2001 goes on general release in the US tomorrow. Has it been made too soon, asks David Usborne
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Passers-by on West 54th Street saw the schemozzle outside the Ziegfeld Theatre and sighed - one more Manhattan movie premiere. There was the ritual red carpet, the paparazzi and the celebrities. But they were missing something - an atmosphere almost of dread. The silent worry in everyone's head: "Do I really want to see this? Am I ready?"

More than just a first night of a film, Tuesday was also the first night of the Tribeca Film Festival, founded by Robert De Niro and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal as a gesture towards reviving lower Manhattan after the terror attacks of 11 September. When the festival debuted in 2002, De Niro chose a light comedy for its opening feature - About a Boy, starring an endearing British actor, Hugh Grant.

If easy distraction was the right medicine then, apparently, it no longer is. The audience at the Ziegfeld were tense because they were preparing to watch United 93, a film by Paul Greengrass that bluntly chronicles in real time the hijacking of the fourth airliner on 11 September 2001 - the plane that never reached a target but nose-dived into a lonely field in Pennsylvania killing all on board.

That the film would be controversial was evident the moment trailers for it began running here last month. A handful of cinemas decided to pull the coming-soon spots after patrons complained. When it comes out on national release in the US tomorrow, at least people will be able to choose whether or not to go to see it. It will not be an easy choice.

A fierce debate has already started. It is not about the film itself, which has so far garnered almost worshipful praise from critics. "Brilliant, tightly focused and momentuous," New York magazine said this week. It is about timing and taste. Is it too soon for art to be tinkering with such fresh trauma?

It perhaps isn't surprising that, until now, it hasn't been Americans who have taken the risk. They have been British. Paul Greengrass, who began his career making documentaries before attracting wider attention with docudramas such as Bloody Sunday, is British. United 93 was largely made at Pinewood Studios near London with the backing of the British production house, Working Title.

Then there is David Hare. An updated version of his tragicomedy about Bush, Rummy, Condi et al and their arrogant march to war in Iraq, Stuff Happens, recently began a run at the Public Theatre in Manhattan. Just a few short miles from Ground Zero, the play offers New York audiences a shockingly mordant take on the machinations at the White House. It is more timely today than ever.

Putting the agony of 11 September on the big screen for a mass audience as Greengrass has done is a slightly different thing, of course. The question about time is complicated. America is approaching the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks. That is perhaps long enough for a film like this, because the wounds are not quite as raw. Indeed, memories could be fading a little. Perhaps they need refreshing.

And yet, five years is nothing at all. Consider: family members of those on board United 93 were in Washington DC yesterday, lobbying Congress to approve funding for a permanent memorial in that Pennsylvania field. Things move that slowly. And it was only this Tuesday - the same day as the premiere - that New York finally struck a deal with the leaseholder of the twin towers, Larry Silverstein, on the financial arrangements for rebuilding Ground Zero, where things have moved even more slowly.

And as the Hare play illustrates, the shockwaves of 11 September remain as powerful as ever for all of us. The war on terror that the attacks provoked dominates politics both in the US and in Britain and still touches all of our lives in some way. We think about 11 September every time we fly and pass through the new security screenings. Watch the Greengrass film and you may not to want to fly for a very long time.

It would be hard to beat Tuesday night's screening for sheer intensity of emotion within the four walls of a cinema anywhere. Many watching had direct and personal contact with what happened on 11 September. They were at Ground Zero when the planes went in and the towers tumbled. They may have been part of the rescue effort. A large majority, at least, were in the city on that clear-blue day.

Also present, however, were about 90 of those relatives of the 40 passengers and crew of the plane that went down. Robert De Niro, making a characteristically brief speech before the projector came on, said the film was "a story that honours bravery" and then paid tribute to the families. The Ziegfeld audience turned to look at them seated together in the rear, distressed anticipation on their faces, and erupted in applause.

Five years or no five years, Greengrass takes us instantly back to the morning the US was caught so hopelessly unawares. The film, made in hand-held camera style, opens with the hijackers at dawn in a cheap hotel room, saying their prayers and mentally girding for the deadly task ahead of them. Slowly and deliberately, he tracks the tragedy - the passengers and crew gathering for the flight from Newark airport to San Francisco, the co-pilot doing his walkaround of the aircraft, the loading of fuel into its tanks.

The realism of the film is unadorned and merciless. Indeed, some of the roles are played not by actors but by the people actually involved. There, for instance, is the head of the Federal Aviation Authority, Ben Sliney, trying to cope with the unfolding of not one, but four airliners being hijacked at once. He is played by Ben Sliney. Greengrass coaxed extraoardinary performances out of the others who were part of the real drama of the day, including other air traffic controllers and military officers.

No attempts to sensationalise or sentimentalise were necessary. There is scant characterisation of the passengers, beyond moments of eavesdropping on their desperate phone calls to loved ones at home as their last minutes pass. The instants of extreme violence - including the stabbing of the pilot and of a passenger - are not lingered over. But nor are they airbrushed to save anguish.

And anguish on Tuesday there was. When the film reached its inevitable, pulverising conclusion, a chorus of moaning filled the rear rows of the Ziegfeld. Out of respect - for those family members, for everyone who suffered on 11 September and perhaps also for Greengrass - the entire audience sat silent and stock-still for the full five minutes that the credits rolled. They filed out sombre faced, as if from a funeral.

What is important is that Greengrass won approval for his project from every family bereaved by United 93. Indeed, they were involved closely in helping achieve the greatest veracity possible, although he inevitably had to apply imagination to the details of what transpired on the plane. (The credits include a disclaimer to that effect). It helps also that he and Universal, the distributor, have pledged to donate 10 per cent of the opening weekend's box office to the building of the memorial, when that finally happens.

Thus, though their eyes were reddened, most family members at the Ziegfeld admitted to emotions after the screening that were knotted but full of gratitude. For Candyce Hoagland, the aunt of one passenger, Mark Bingham, it had been "excruciating". She had stayed near the exits but was proud she had left the theatre only once to compose herself. "It's not too soon," she said with a clear voice.

That was also the conclusion of Mark Bingham's mother, Alice Hoagland. "The story needs to be told, because it is about heroism juxtaposed with evil," she said, waiting outside for a bus to take her and other family members to a reception and dinner at the nearby Four Seasons restaurant. "This is about a group of people fighting to save their lives and the save the lives of people on the ground."

Greengrass observes more than just the events on that aircraft. Much of the film recalls the mayhem on the ground, in the air traffic and military command centres. And the impression, more than ever, is left of a national security bureaucracy that responded sclerotically to the crisis that burst forth over a single September morning. "To be honest, I think the chaos was even more than depicted in the film," noted Jim Bohlaber, an air traffic controller in New York that day who was in the audience on Tuesday.

But Greengrass made the fate of United 93 his focus for a good reason. When the passengers mutinyed and tried to retake the controls, it is not for sure that the lives of people on the ground - the film speculates that the plane's target was the Capitol in Washington DC - were in their minds. Anyone's first instinct would be to save themself.

But his first theme, as De Niro said, is human bravery and courage. The film is about heroism on a day that was otherwise about only death and hatred. For that reason, the US, a desperately patriotic nation, may embrace this film in huge numbers, even though the watching of it will be ghastly.

English director who took America's nightmare

The streets of Cheam in Surrey are far from mean. Strange then, that the town's most famous son, Paul Greengrass, born in August 1955, should have tackled such contentious, bloody subject matter in the two decades he has been making films. Whether shooting 'The Bourne Supremacy' or 'Bloody Sunday', Greengrass's work always bears his stamp - a hand-held vision that makes the action viscerally real.

It is a vérité style he first pioneered as an amateur auteur in the art room of his secondary school, with an old super 8 camera, a handful of dolls, and a Hammer-Horror storyline.

After studying at Cambridge University, Greengrass's career took off as a director on the ITV current affairs flagship, 'World in Action' - a decade that he would later describe as "a festival of puerile self-importance, intense paranoia, fiddled expenses and brilliant creativity."

From early days on WIA, Greengrass went on to court a little infamy, as he co-wrote Peter Wright's 1985 MI5 tell-all 'Spycatcher'.

Drama followed - directing the SAS story, 'The One that Got Away', and a fictional tale of football bungs, 'The Fix'.

'The Murder of Stephen Lawrence' in 1999, the 2002 docudrama 'Bloody Sunday', winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and 'Omagh' in 2004, gained him worldwide respect.

His association with the Bourne franchise (he is directing the forthcoming The Bourne Ultimatum) has lent him serious box-office credentials, but his skills have not relinquished the non-fiction genre that made his name. When the hoopla of 'United 93' subsides, he is slated to direct 'They Marched Into Sunlight' - a documentary about the Vietnam conflict.