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Given a special screening at Cannes 2006, United 93 is a real time re-enactment of the fourth flight hijacked on September 11, 2001. At the Festival, Andrew L. Urban meets director Paul Greengrass, two of the widows, two of the actors and an air traffic controller who re-enacts his own role in the drama. United was the airline, but we can read into the title the actions of the terrified victims that challenged the terrorists.

Lest anyone mistake the dedication at the end of United 93 “to all the victims” Paul Greengrass never intended it to suggest some sort of moral equivalence between the passengers and crew of the doomed flight, and the four terrorists who hijacked and eventually crashed the plane, killing everyone on board. “I do not accept such a moral equivalence. Nobody could look at those events and not abhor the cruelty and the violence and the death of innocent people. That’s been my position over many years of making films about political violence; I abhorred it in Northern Ireland and stood against it, from whichever side it came … the causes of political violence are always complex, always banal and always involve the death of innocent people. I abhor political violence; it’s the enemy of progressive politics…”

A large, lumbering sort of bloke, Greengrass is doing the media rounds during the Cannes film festival where United 93 is screened in a special, non-competitive slot. Anywhere would be incongruous to be discussing United 93, the real time dramatisation of the flight on September 11, 2001 that crashed into a field well away from its intended target: the White House. It seems especially so, though, in the spacious ballroom of the sparkling Carlton Hotel on the shores of the Mediterranean, with its gilded chairs, crystal chandeliers and the ghostly echo of hundreds of past celebrations.

He’s accompanied by a small team from the film, including widows Melodie Homer and Sandy Felt, two of the actors, Christian Clemenson and Cheyenne Jackson, as well as Ben Sliney, the air traffic chief on the day of the hijack, who re-enacts his own role in the events. The widows talk about coping with the aftermath, and with their decision to co-operate with the filmmakers. “I recognised that it was going to be made accurately and with integrity, not sensationalised … that’s why I agreed and that’s why I have come here to talk about it,” says Melodie Homer, whose husband was the First Officer on the flight.

"personal responsibility"

Her response to seeing the terrorists portrayed on the flight was anger - but not at the four young men. “I see them as brainwashed youth …” Sandy Felt, on the other hand, “hated them…I believe in personal responsibility. The movie humanises them and gives them personality so it’s even scarier.” Eventually overpowered by the passengers, the terrorists couldn’t avoid crashing the plane. United was the airline, but we can read into the title the actions of the terrified victims that challenged the terrorists.

The actors, cast for their physical resemblance to the passengers and crew on the flight, speak of the experience of making the film as unique in every way. “We each had virtually a book on the people we play,” says Clemenson, who portrays 38 year old Thomas E. Burnett jnr, a manger with Thoratec, a medical device company. “We weren’t asked to do impersonations,” says Jackson, who plays Mark Bingham, “but we had a physical resemblance … I also contacted his family via email – after much trepidation, but they were lovely and helped a lot. Especially as we had to improvise all the dialogue.” (Bingham was 31, a keen rugby player who ran his own PR company: ironically enough, he was on his way to attend the wedding of a close Muslim friend.)

Both Clemenson and Jackson believe audiences will be surprised by the portrayal of the hijackers; “they’re not caricatures but individuals.” The four actors who portray the terrorists had the hardest time on set, always staying apart from the others, burdened by their roles. But the filmmaking process was exceptionally arduous for all concerned: Greengrass would run 30, 40 or even 50 minute takes, and sometimes they would need to be repeated more than a dozen times. (Resulting in a few continuity goofs…) “None of our training prepared us for this,” says Jackson. “There are no lines, no marks to hit and the character has to be found in new ways; for me, certain actions helped define my character.”

For Ben Sliney, the re-enactment was relatively straight forward, except for the scene when flight 175 slams into the South Tower. “That was the moment I realised it was all part of a concerted effort…” (He also recalls making a conscious effort to stay calm and speak quietly in the midst of the drama, but on set, he was asked by Greengrass to be “a bit more dramatic”.)

Greengrass eventually got to the point of thinking that the film had to be made, and he had to make it. “There was a voice inside my head … what’s the point of making all those films about political violence in Northern Ireland, if you don’t then go on and address 9/11, because it’s clearly going to drive all our politics today and for the rest of our lives. I hadn’t decided and I was unsure about making this film, and then the London bombings (on July 7, 2005) happened and that really decided me. That was the day I said I was definitely going to make this film.”

As Greengrass puts it, “there were two hijackings that day; the one that we portray in the film, and the second was the highjacking of the religion, via the use of selective quotations from the Koran and the misuse of the Koran. It’s a call to so called sleeping Muslims; the purpose of these attacks was to radicalise all Muslims.”

"the questions that really matter"

United 93 relates what happened on the flight in as much accurate detail as possible, and for Greengrass, the film poses the question in the wider context of political violence: “what the f*** are we going to do about it?” He dismisses notions that it’s too soon to talk about it on film. “I don’t believe that, because I’ve spent the large part of my working life talking to people who suffered directly from political violence. And what you find is not at all what you expect: you very rarely find bitterness and a desire for revenge. Of course you find anger and grief, but what you do find in abundance are people whose lives have no connection with each other save that their lives were destroyed by a single act of violence – of whatever source, the British Army, the IRA or jihadists – propelled on a path, a quest towards meaning, towards the questions that really matter: why has this happened and what are we going to do about it.”

United 93 opens in Australia on August 17, 2006

Published August 10, 2006

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Paul Greengrass


United 93 releases nationally in Australia on August 17, 2006

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