United 93: Hollywood Gets it Right This Time (or 9/11 Meets Apollo 13)

04/28/2006: In a politically-charged climate such as ours, it is easy to understand why making a movie about September 11 would be risky. To be fair, everybody has an opinion about what motivated the hijackers, and the effect of our post-9/11 strategy. Given the recent attempts by others to use the screen to advance political views, there is legitimate cause for concern over the potential for politicizing 9/11.

United 93 avoided that. As David Beamer–father of Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer–opined in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Hollywood got it right this time.

There is no political agenda in this movie.

A few notes about suitability: It would be a good movie for a family to see together. These are matters where healthy discussion is recommended, and the movie is good for that. The language is relatively clean, as the emphasis is not on salty language, but rather capturing the situation. There are a few F-bombs, and I counted one GD-bomb, but other than that it’s clean. There are some bloody scenes, but they are not overdone. This is not The Passion of the Christ or Saving Private Ryan. I do not, however, recommend it for pre-teens (except if the parents see it first). That’s a judgment call.

The movie is very stressful from the five-minute mark onward. One gets a close-up view of the difficulties faced by the air traffic controllers, the FAA, and our military. The directors capture the extreme hardships faced by multiple levels of command in even understanding what was going on, as things were unfolding very rapidly.

Keep in mind that the first plane–American Airlines Flight 11–hit the North tower at about 8:45 AM. At 10:03 AM–a mere 78 minutes later–United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA. In between that time, flights hit the South Tower and the Pentagon. While all that is transpiring, there are thousands of planes in the air (each one a blip on the screen for which controllers are responsible for maintaining adequate separation from the other blips), and even the suspect flights were tough to discern as hijackings.

Imagine trying to interpret such ambiguous data under the pressure that the military, FAA, and air traffic controllers were experiencing.

United 93 captures that in spectacular fashion!

Enter the heroes of United Flight 93.

Thanks to cellular (and air-phone) technology, the passengers learned that two jets had hit the World Trade Center and one had hit the Pentagon.

Given that your plane has been hijacked, and knowing that three buildings have been hit, what would you do?

Compounding matters, one of the hijackers is wearing what appears to be a bomb.

Now what would you do?

Had they been resigned to their fate, done nothing, and United 93 hit Capitol Hill or the White House, no one would fault the passengers for staying put. They were under no moral obligation to attack the hijackers.

What they did was morally supererogatory.

In the Army, Soldiers are trained to–if necessary–fall on grenades in order to save the others in their units. (Those who do so realize they are dead anyway, and it’s merely a matter of saving their comrades.) It is not uncommon for soldiers who do that to receive posthumous Medals of Honor, as–training or no training–it is still a gutsy act.

But the passengers of Flight 93 were not military-trained combatants, yet they had already witnessed things that would challenge the resolve of our best Special Forces operators.

They had a decision to make, and they made the best decision in a lose-lose situation.

On a day in which very little went right, the Constitutional Militia of Flight 93 reported for duty, and scored our first victory against Islamist terrorists.

The passengers also scored another major accomplishment: they made future hijackings less likely. Now, anyone who attempts to hijack an American flight will get beat to a pulp. They’ll never make it into the cockpit. If the sky marshals don’t put bullets in their heads, the passengers will take care of business.

Ergo, the heroes of Flight 93 made our skies safer.

United 93 also presents another group of heroes: the air traffic controllers (ATCs).

On a good day, ATCs have one of the hardest jobs in America. Their job is to keep planes from meeting in the air (or on the ground). That involves properly directing aircraft taxiing, taking off, ascending, flying level, approaching the runway, landing, and taxiing. When they get it wrong, lots of people die. And all it takes for that to happen is the slightest lapse in concentration.

From the moment American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North WTC Tower to just past noon, the ATCs safely brought in over 4,000 aircraft without so much as a near-miss.

United 93 is a fitting tribute to the passengers who scored a major victory, and the ATCs who kept their heads and did a remarkable job under the most extraordinary pressure.

Semper Fi to the heroes Flight 93, and hats off to Hollywood.

I often chide them when they get it wrong, but they got it right this time.

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