August 2006

Arts & Letters

The rules of engagement

By Helen Garner
Paul Greengrass’s ‘United 93’

On a lovely autumn morning in early September 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 took off from Newark, bound for San Francisco. Among its passengers were four young Islamic hijackers, armed with knives and explosives. While flight 93 was in the air, three other hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By 10.03 that morning, flight 93 had missed its hijackers’ target, the Capitol in Washington, and slammed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. No one survived.

Five years have passed. We have tried to absorb the facts and find the meanings of that day. We’ve had to make peace with them, in our private ways, because we’ve got to keep on living in what is known as the post-9/11 world. So how can we bear, now, to be dragged through it again, to sit in the dark for two hours and watch the story’s relentless deathward plummet, in what feels hideously like real time?

Two things make it possible. First, the exemplary tonal and technical brilliance of United 93 as a piece of film-making; and second, the fact that some of the passengers on flight 93, knowing that nothing could save them, found the nerve to plan and launch a wild, last-ditch attack on the hijackers. The laws of feature-film narrative are ironclad. Without this burst of hopeless defiance, we would have no curve, no plot, no movie.

United 93’s director, Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy), is British. Perhaps this is why he has been able to steer clear of the heroic posturing and sentimental appeals to patriotism we might have feared in a native version of the story.

At the same time, the physical world in which United 93 unfolds is effortlessly American. Greengrass has cast a mixture of obscure actors and actual airline workers and flight-control personnel. Part of his remarkable achievement is to establish, in layer after relaxed layer, the texture of an ordinary working morning – to make the casual, the mundane glow under the shadow of its annihilation.

First, though, in the opening shots we see the hijackers at prayer in their cheap motel. Fresh sunlight streams past its windows. Their faces are sombre, terribly young. The camera averts its gaze, accords them privacy as they wash and shave their faces, limbs and genitals. They slide knives into their belts. Then, as they step out of their cab at Newark and join the check-in queue, their approach to the plane is intercut with cheerful footage of what they have come to destroy.

The flight crew ambles with its wheelie suitcases down the pristine aisles of the aircraft. Outside, mechanics in overalls stand under the plane’s belly, gazing up at curved metal. The camera roams along the rows of passengers as they gather at the gate lounge, engaged in the benign trivia of the departing. One of the hijackers, his face rigid, calls a number on his mobile: “Ich liebe dich,” he murmurs, unanswered, as if to a machine, “Ich liebe dich.” Among the readers and talkers and eaters, a grandmother sits quietly working at her crochet, a pastime that, along with knitting, has vanished from planes since that day. The plainer the people – coarse skin, double chins, unglamorous clothes – the more their tiny preparatory actions strain our nerves.

Before flight 93 has even got the signal to taxi, we cut to the command centre of the Federal Aviation Administration, where workers at their screens call out in bewilderment as one plane in flight, then another, drops off the radar or suddenly changes course. “They think they got a hijack!” “This is sim?” “No! Real world! I heard it in my ear! Check it out!” At Newark, ignorant flight 93 turns on to the sunny runway and thunders towards take-off.

The cataract of information that Greengrass has to handle defies précis. We get swamped by it, just as the air traffic people do. In dim command centres and control towers, people in headphones stand gaping before TV screens. Smoke gushes from the World Trade Center. The second plane plunges voluptuously into the glistening wall of steel and glass. The camera itself becomes panicky, incredulous, mimicking our shock.

But Greengrass drives the narrative on with a furious authority, leaping back and forth between the dawning horror on the ground and the pale, peaceful innocence of flight 93, where the pilots are being served their little breakfasts on plastic trays, and a lady politely asks the attendant for a glass of water to take her pills.

And then the first hijacker, shouting in praise of Allah, throws himself on a passenger and stabs him to death in a welter of blood. The others murder the pilots and haul their bodies out of the cockpit. The austere, devout young man in glasses (“Ich liebe dich”) is now in command of the plane. While his panting comrade sluices blood off his hands with a bottle of spring water, the new pilot wedges a colour photo of the Capitol among the controls and turns the aircraft towards Washington.

This is not a film about heroes. It’s not even, thank God, about characters: we don’t “get to know” anyone. It’s a vast ensemble piece on speed, a densely textured, brilliantly edited, unerringly paced creation of chaos and horror.

On the ground, the civilians shout for the military, and the military begs in vain for orders. The chain of command is non-existent. The fighters they get into the air are not armed. “Can we engage? Do we have any communication with the president at all? How about the vice-president? Holy shit! What the fuck? What are the rules of engagement? The only person with the nous to take charge is the guy who’s been promoted the day before to national operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration. He cuts through the uproar. “Everyone lands,” he says, “regardless of destination.”

“You’re gonna shut down the entire country?” cries his deputy. “Take a minute!”

“Shut down the airspace! We’re at war! With someone!”

Flight 93, awash with blood, goes screaming across the bright morning sky. In the cockpit the hijackers hear radio reports of the twin towers and Pentagon strikes: “The brothers have hit both targets!” Some passengers pray and weep, hunch over borrowed mobiles to whisper farewells, sob out promises to their children, make declarations of love.

But others, hiding from the hijackers among the high seat-backs, start to rage and mutter. It takes one cool-head to galvanise them. “No one’s going to help us,” he says. “We’ve got to do it ourselves.” An ex-pilot thinks he can fly the plane, if they can break down the door. A bunch of them seize whatever weapons they can find – forks, a fire extinguisher – and rush the hijackers, battering the cockpit door with a heavy steel trolley.

Their violence sends a charge of crazed energy through the film’s last minutes. The air is thick with howls of terror and anguish, with cries to God in Arabic. The camera, too, is in there fighting: things blur and lurch, something splits apart, wires are trailing. The cockpit’s windscreen fills with city streets, then with the fresh dark-green grass-blades of a meadow.


I have a rule of thumb for judging the value of a piece of art. Does it give me energy, or take energy away? When I staggered out of United 93 this rule had lost traction. I realised I had spent most of the screening crouching forward half out of my seat, with my hand clamped around my jaw. Something in me had been violently shifted off-centre. Outside in the street there seemed to be a dark grey cloud over everything. An excruciating pity for all material things overwhelmed me. This flayed sensation lasted about two days, then gradually dissipated.

I’m left with a confused mixture of respect for the craft of the movie, amazed admiration for the people who charged the hijackers, and the same old haunting question: why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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