Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Flight That Lives in Infamy

"The war on terror begins with 40 ordinary people."


Anyone old enough to remember the tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001 — and that must mean anyone who is at least 23 or 24 now — will never forget anything about it.

For many people, it was the first time they had given much thought to terrorism, its practitioners and its purpose. Prior to 2001, most folks gave terrorism superficial attention at times and at best — after the jumbo jet was blown from the sky over Lockerbie or the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center was made or the successful attempt to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City occurred.

But terrorism really came to America in 2001 when the al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes and flew them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

The fourth airplane, United 93, slammed into a field in Southwestern Pennsylvania, killing all on board but failing to reach its apparent target, the Capitol or the White House. The exact target is not known.

There are many things about that flight that are not known. Oh, sure, there are some things that are known. We know about the telephone calls that passengers made to loved ones. We know about Todd Beamer's conversation with an airphone supervisor on the ground. We know about recordings that were made on the plane that day, including the events just before the plane crashed when some of the passengers tried to storm the cockpit.

But many of the details that we believe we know are myths that sprang up almost immediately — like the notion that the plane was filled with modern–day patriots who heroically and unselfishly sacrificed themselves in the first battle in the war on terrorism.

That brings me to the part that I liked the most about "United 93," a movie about that flight that had its first–ever showing (at New York's Tribeca Film Festival) on this day in 2006. It opened across the nation two days later.

What did I like best about it? I liked the fact that the movie showed the plane's passengers and crew as the humans they were. Based on what we have heard from recordings, there clearly were those on board who refused to go down without a fight. But there must also have been those who huddled in the back of the plane.

It is tempting, from our perspective, to criticize those who may have remained in the back, clinging to the hope that the flight would not end the way it did. They were only minutes from their deaths, we might say to ourselves. What did they have to lose?

We have the advantage of knowing how it all turned out, but no one on board the plane that day knew what was going to happen. It seems entirely plausible to me that, given the way children have been raised in America for generations, some of the passengers did as they were told in the futile belief that they could save themselves by cooperating.

I always knew that the events of Sept. 11 would be dramatized in at least one feature film, but "United 93" — which was the first full–length big–screen dramatization about that day — came along even earlier than I expected. It had been fewer than five years since the hijackings, after all.

A deliberate decision was made not to use well–known actors and actresses in the film — so as not to detract from the story. Probably the only person viewers might have recognized — and they really would have had to search their memories to place her — was Rebecca Schull, whose greatest claim to fame probably was as the ticket agent on the TV sitcom Wings. (I don't think she had any lines in the movie and relatively few on–screen moments.)

You might have seen one or two others, but they almost certainly played small parts in those movies or TV shows, and you would probably never remember in what you had seen them. It was best not to dwell on such things too much, anyway — at least while you were watching "United 93" — even though we all know the story.

As I say, there are many myths that continue to swirl around that flight. One is that the passengers were heroic to the end — and, human nature being what it is, I find it hard to believe that some of the passengers didn't become hysterical or burst into tears. No one on that flight spoke of the big picture or a war on terrorism that had not begun — at least as far as Americans were concerned.

The passengers were, as the tagline said, "40 ordinary people," and that is precisely what "United 93" sought to convey through its casting. Unlike the hijackers, they boarded that plane with no political agendas, and they died not knowing if anyone outside their families and circles of friends would know who they had been.

"It is not too soon for 'United 93' because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11," wrote Roger Ebert. "The entire story, every detail, is told in the present tense. We know what they know when they know it, and nothing else. Nothing about Al Qaeda, nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq, only events as they unfold. This is a masterful and heartbreaking film, and it does honor to the memory of the victims."

I agree with that.

And I think the decision to go with largely unknown actors was the right one. With a few exceptions, the victims on Sept. 11 were unknown, too. That is what made their deaths so compelling. They could have been any one of us. The victims had been people who casually boarded airplanes to fly across the country, either for work or for pleasure, and people who casually went to work as usual. Just a normal day. Normal people.

It wasn't many years before those terrorist attacks that I was flying fairly frequently as part of my job. I wrote for a trade magazine and often had to cover trade shows in other parts of the country. On Sept. 11, I definitely had a sense of there but for the grace of God go I.

(I had a similar sensation several years earlier — after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma in those days, and I often did research at the Oklahoma City library, which wasn't far from the federal building. In fact, I walked past the federal building on am untold number of occasions.)

Of course, knowing what we know now about the terrorists' plan, the odds would have been strongly against my being on a hijacked plane. The hijackers were looking for planes that were carrying enough fuel for a cross–country flight, and the flights originated on the East Coast so the hijacker pilots wouldn't have far to fly to reach their targets in New York and Washington.

My base of operations was here in Dallas. I flew to both coasts in the course of my work, but I always started in Dallas, in the middle of the country. Such a flight would not be a candidate for participation in such a plot. Still, I didn't know that on Sept. 11.

(As for the bombing in Oklahoma City, I wouldn't have been a likely victim of that one, either. The bombing occurred about 30 minutes before I was supposed to teach a class. I wouldn't have been in Oklahoma City that morning. But I had been there on other mornings.)

U.S. intelligence personnel may have known more details on the night of Sept. 11 than most folks in the general public did, but the movie managed to capture the sense of bewilderment that I and most of the people around me experienced that morning. I have no doubt it reflected the atmosphere in most places across the United States. Perhaps also in some corners of the intelligence community.

Most of the people with whom I worked fit Ebert's description of what movie viewers knew in the context of "United 93." There was no TV in my office at that time, and we got updates from friends and relatives who called the office to report what was happening.

No one in our office understood what was happening — or why it was happening. Few of them, frankly, knew anything about Osama bin Laden, and no one knew anything about al Qaeda — until George W. Bush mentioned it in his speech to a joint session of Congress more than a week later.

In that way, and in every other, "United 93" was true to the moment in time that it sought to recapture. And that is what I look for in movies about historical events. I'm willing to give a movie some wiggle room in its portrayal of an event or series of events — if it needs it and if it doesn't contradict the facts.

Some events need no embellishment. Sept. 11 was such an event. And I saw nothing that seemed to be an attempt to embellish the dramatization of that day.

We know there was some kind of revolt on Flight 93. Beyond that, so much — what was said, what was done and by whom — is largely speculation.

The speculation in "United 93" was reasonable. The passengers didn't mount a counterattack with patriotic music swelling in the background. "The passengers are a terrified planeload of strangers," Ebert observed. Some of the passengers wept, some prayed, some joined in the revolt.

Put any three dozen or so people together in such a situation and you will have that kind of mix. Some people succumb to fear. Others overcome it. You never know how you will react to a situation until you find yourself in it. And, looking back on it, it is inevitable, I suppose, that some things will seem hackneyed and cliched the more they have been retold — and re–spun.

"There has been much discussion of the movie's trailer," Ebert wrote, "and no wonder. It pieces together moments from 'United 93' to make it seem more conventional, more like a thriller. Dialogue that seems absolutely realistic in context sounds, in the trailer, like sound bites and punch lines. To watch the trailer is to sense the movie that [director Paul] Greengrass did not make. To watch 'United 93' is to be confronted with the grim chaotic reality of that September day in 2001."

Yes, it was a grim day. Yes, it was chaotic — on the ground, I know, and I'm sure it was even more chaotic in the air.

It is a story that should never be forgotten — and "United 93" did its best to make sure it isn't.