"United 93," Hollywood's first big-budget film about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is faithful to the major aspects of the tragic morning it depicts. The movie tracks the key events detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report, the most definitive source on the subject: the commandeering of the United jet by four terrorists, the panic of the passengers and the heroic rebellion that ended with the plane crashing in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
But the movie, which opens nationwide today, is a dramatic re-creation that includes scenes and images that go far beyond what is known about the attacks.
Those scenes raise questions: How far can a dramatic movie go in imposing its own reality before it distorts the public's understanding of the event? And with memories of 9/11 still vivid and raw, is it too soon for such films to be made?
The questions have special relevance as film producers prepare other 9/11-related projects. Oliver Stone, who portrayed the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the result of a conspiracy in "JFK," is the director of this summer's "World Trade Center." Sony Pictures, meanwhile, is developing the film "102 Minutes," based on the bestseller about the time span between the first tower's crash and its collapse. A TV miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission Report is also in the works.
"United 93's" director, Paul Greengrass, has said he sought to create the "plausible truth" of what happened, given that many details are unknown.
Target: Capitol or White House?
The film asserts that the hijackers' intended target was the Capitol. In one scene, Ziad Jarrah, the Lebanese terrorist who piloted the plane, props a picture of the building on the cockpit's console, imposing a cinematic answer to a question that the 9/11 Commission could not resolve: whether the terrorists were trying to hit the Capitol or the White House. Investigators said that point was a source of contention among the 9/11 plotters, with Osama bin Laden favoring a strike on the White House and others, including Mohamed Atta, favoring the Capitol.
"United 93" also suggests that the terrorists killed the pilot and co-pilot, for example, but what occurred is unclear. A United 93 flight recorder picked up the terrorists ordering someone repeatedly to "sit down" and discussing whether to "bring the pilot back" late in the hijacking.
"United 93" also shows the passengers breaching the cockpit with a beverage cart and wrestling the terrorists for control as the plane plummets. Although the 9/11 report states that the passengers fought back in the flight's final moments, the commission had no indication that the passengers entered the cockpit. The report suggests the opposite: "The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them."
Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, says researchers consulted numerous sources, including the 9/11 Commission Report, military and civilian aviation authorities, and more than 100 family members and friends of the victims. The movie's advisers included Ben Sliney, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration's Command Center in Herndon on Sept. 11; Sliney portrays himself in the film.
Lloyd Levin, a "United 93" co-producer, acknowledges that the film went beyond known facts about the flight, but he justifies the movie's approach as artistically necessary. "Our mandate was not the same as the 9/11 Commission Report," Levin said. "Our mandate was to what Paul wanted to say with this movie. We're not journalists. Paul is an artist."
He called some of the questionable depictions "choices we had to make." Whether the passengers actually breached the cockpit is "a moot point, because at that point you're in the area of metaphor," he said.
Those choices might satisfy moviegoers but they rankle those interested in a more literal portrait of the events of Sept. 11.
‘Artistic license with history’
"I would prefer history tell itself, rather than have Hollywood tell it," said Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. "There's so much we just don't know. Unfortunately, they're taking artistic license with history and people will believe it's accurate. Speculation is okay for drama, but it's less okay when it's purporting to tell history. If they didn't know, why didn't they just leave it out?"
Lemack, co-founder of the organization Families of September 11, has not seen the movie, but she says she was surprised and upset by its trailer and promotional poster, which shows smoke pouring from the World Trade Center towers. She also says the filmmakers missed an opportunity to spur moviegoers to find out more about terrorism and call them to action. (Universal will donate 10 percent of the movie's first weekend ticket sales to a memorial fund.)
The decision to counterattack the terrorists was made after passengers learned that other hijacked planes had crashed, according to the 9/11 report and the film. In addition to the cockpit recordings, eyewitness accounts came from crew members and passengers, who used cellphones and air phones to contact people on the ground. But those accounts were sometimes contradictory and fragmentary, and the 9/11 Commission acknowledged that many details never will be known.
Levin acknowledges that in dramatizing the course of the flight, "United 93" makes creative leaps to fill in the blanks. For example, it's not clear who among the passengers spearheaded the response to the terrorists. One passenger, in a phone call from the plane, left it vague: "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye." The 9/11 Commission could not identify whose voices are heard as the passengers storm the cockpit door. "United 93" tackles this uncertainty with a reasonable assumption: that the charge was led by the strongest, most athletic men, including a judo champion.
Other scenes appear to be wholly invented. In one, a passenger who argued for cooperating with the hijackers is restrained by others as the counterattack begins. In another, the passengers are shown overwhelming two hijackers and apparently killing them. Both depictions might be dramatically satisfying, but there's no evidence that either of those events occurred.
‘They got it right’
Many of the victims' immediate relatives have endorsed the movie, saying it fairly represents their final hours. David Beamer, whose son Todd Beamer was killed, told the Associated Press this week: "Our personal reaction was one of relief, because they got it right. When it comes to September 11 and United Flight 93, we don't need another movie. This one got it."
But others question whether it was necessary to make even one movie about an event that many have lived through.
Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert with the Rand Corp., notes that the news media have long avoided replaying some of the more disturbing images of Sept. 11. But, he says: "These equally horrible events are now being depicted as entertainment. I don't know why that's more acceptable.
"Producers and directors can have the purest and best intentions to re-create the horror and tragedy and bravery of the passengers. But the bottom line is, it's still entertainment. You have to question whether making it into entertainment cheapens and demeans it."