United 93

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Even entering the theatre seemed different. The audience skewed older, a collective demeanor like those visiting a funeral home to pay last respects. We were told previews would be few and run early so the movie could start right on time. We wanted to get it started. We wanted it to get over. We did not want to see this. We wanted to see it. Eat your broccoli. Now.

It starts in silence like any early morning rising, dressing in silence so as not to awaken others. The stillness is broken by voices in Arabic, prayers offered in submission to Allah for the obedience, the sacrifice about to be offered; face East, drop to the knees, finish your prayers, go to the airport, pass through security, board the plane and kill everybody.

We watch the innocents young and old chat as they board and flight attendants and crew performing their pre-flight checks. Unlike them we know what is coming and wish we could warn them off the plane. It could have been us. It was us.

(How will the families of the victims react while watching this film I ask myself in the darkened space? I glance to my right and see the twenty-year-old man wiping tears from his cheek¢â‚¬¦already. He knows what is coming too. What must I be to see the future like God and restrain yourself as events evil and good proceed unchecked?)

Watch air traffic controllers and military try to figure out why planes are going off course and eventually disappearing off the radar. Watch them turn on CCN like we did. Remember that day. This is too much. I turn my head from the innocents.

“In the name of God, Lord I have submitted my will to you,” says a half-crazed manic one. Events unfold–blood-mayhem-panic. Passengers, desperate and brave, plot the next step, make their last call and assess the situation. “The Lord is my shepherd¢â‚¬¦yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death¢â‚¬¦I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

United 93 opened in theatres nationwide and generated a respectable 2nd in a crowded Box Office (to a rotten tomato 93% approval rating compared to RV which was number one in the box office but received a 22 rating). Contrary to fears that this film might be too soon after 911, exploitative or sensationalized, it was instead a documentary-like film that followed the events of the day accurately and respectfully.

It was not released too soon–as Roger Ebert said, “It is not too soon for “United 93,” because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11. 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.”

The LA Times reviewer, Kenneth Turan rightly warns, “”United 93″ is not an easy flight to board. This staggering, draining film is exceptionally accomplished but extremely difficult to watch. It turns out to be easier to admire from whatever distance you can manage than to embrace with any kind of emotional intimacy.” Filmmaker Paul Greengrass put his experience as a documentary filmmaker to good use here as Turan points out, “working this way is familiar territory for the filmmaker. Known in Hollywood primarily as the director of the successful sequel “The Bourne Supremacy,” Greengrass spent a decade as a top British documentarian.” 100’s of hours of interviews and 1st-person transcripts were used to compile this script. The painstaking process was worth it.

Thoughtful Muslims will grieve to hear the Koran quoted as a rationale for the slaughter of innocents and to hear the barbaric behavior justified as “submission” to Allah–but this is simply an accurate portrayal of how terrorists abused the tenets of Islam on September 11. The 23rd Psalm prayed as the backdrop for the death to come was touching. There are no atheists in the foxholes.

Cheyenne Jackson, plays Mark Bingham, and in a recent interview describes the film’s impact on the actors. “In his room at night, far from the city (“really kind of in the middle of sheep and cow pastures”), Jackson struggled to come to terms with the work. “I slept probably two hours a night while I was filming it,” he remembered. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Mark and these people. It broke my heart every day. We would do these long, incredibly exhausting takes, covered in fake blood and some real blood, our voices were gone from screaming, so exhausted emotionally. But then at the end of the day we could walk off the plane, wash off our makeup, get some coffee and try to let it all go, and these people [the real passengers] couldn’t. “That is what will stay with me forever. That’s why this movie was made. I’m not the same, I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”

When it came to the end, the screen went dark, the room fell quiet and everyone sat motionless. The credits scrolled. No familiar actors. United flight 93 passengers names scrolled by in silence. Numerous Air Traffic Controllers and military played themselves, perhaps their way of purging the memory and respecting the lost innocents. They were kind enough to invite us into the darkened room, where digital bits flashed on the screen and reminded us. May we never forget. Let it break your heart everyday and may we never be the same.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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