Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Here's one crash movie that every airline passenger should see

Both films are set in the 21st century and focus on murderous religious fanatics, but that is about all they share in common. The more well-publicised movie portrays an imaginary conspiracy with fictional victims; the less conspicuous film depicts part of a genuine plot that claimed thousands of lives. An edited version of the former will no doubt appear as in-flight entertainment on dozens of airlines; the latter is among the few feature films unlikely to feature on the seat-back screen this summer.

The first is, of course, The Da Vinci Code, the cinematic version of Dan Brown's book - which, just in case you have been trekking across the Gobi Desert for the past five years, hypothesises that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their blood-line continues to the present day. "Evidence" to support this theory is summoned from symbols said to be hidden in all sorts of historical and artistic works.

The title of the second, United 93, is the flight number of one of the four jets hijacked on 11 September 2001. This was the only aircraft to be taken over on that terrible morning that failed to hit its target, the White House. The Boeing 757 took off from Newark, New Jersey, destination San Francisco. The passengers and crew learned from mobile-phone calls that they were hostages in this attack on America, and overpowered the hijackers. The jet crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

I saw both films in the same week. The Da Vinci Code is a well-crafted thriller with all the profound moral substance of a Jeffrey Archer novel or an Albanian entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. In contrast, United 93 is terrifying, intimate and compelling.

The brutality that unfolds in real time as the hijackers take over the California-bound jet is depicted in an unmanipulative way, yet it is profoundly shocking - as is the way that the events mesmerised those on the ground.

No one survived the crash of the hijacked Boeing 757. Only fragments of conversations during the 91-minute flight from Newark airport were recorded. So the writer-director Paul Greengrass painstakingly reconstructed a "plausible truth" as best he could from the 9/11 Commission Report, air-traffic control records and conversations with the families of the victims,.

"One of the reasons why United 93 exerts such a powerful hold on our imaginations is precisely because we don't know exactly what happened," says Greengrass. "Who among us doesn't think about that day and wonder how it must have been and how we might have reacted?"

ALREADY YOU can sign up for Da Vinci Code walks in Paris; the London churches featured in the book are preparing for an onslaught of visitors; and the fine and intriguing Rosslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh is sure to be crowded this summer.

United 93 will do nothing for tourism, though it may persuade some to pay their respects to the passengers and crew of the flight at the memorial that is being created at the crash site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But I believe United 93 will inspire something much more profound than a day trip: a better appreciation of the opportunities we have to travel.

It is a tribute to the aviation industry, and to passengers, that the unimaginable evil of the day when jet aircraft became guided missiles has not deflected us from enjoying the benefits of air travel. Flying is an exceptional instrument for material and emotional prosperity, whether to Brussels for the day on business or Bali for a fortnight of passion. (May we leave the environmental debate for another day?)

Besides its portrayal of courage in the face of impending doom, the film depicts the professionalism of the aviation industry in seeking to preserve human life. And it shows how the passengers and crew on a routine flight can show extraordinary courage when called upon, conveying a message about the human spirit that transcends the entertaining nonsense of The Da Vinci Code.

United 93 should be seen by every passenger, and shown on every airline. But I bet it won't be.

'The Da Vinci Code' is on general release. 'United 93' is released on Friday, 2 June. For information on the Flight 93 National Memorial visit www.honorflight93.org

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