Film: United 93

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 was released into theaters five years after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon to much critical acclaim. As You Know (we assume), the film is Based on a True Story — in this case, on the story of United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four planes hijacked on the morning of September 11, 2001. After the hijackers had taken over the plane and word had reached the plane that the other hijacked planes have crashed into the Twin Towers, the passengers rose up and took out the terrorists, which resulted in a Heroic Sacrifice when the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target (probably the Capitol or The White House). The crash killed everyone aboard, but doubtlessly saved numerous more lives in the process.

Greengrass approached the daunting challenge of retelling the events of the titular flight with the same cautious, apolitical tone with which he guided Bloody Sunday. He casted a number of largely unknown actors and real professionals, then filmed the movie in a Faux Documentary style using separate isolated stages. The final product plays out in Real Time across its nearly two-hour running time.

While numerous critics denounced the film as Too Soon, others lauded it as a gentle, much-needed catharsis.

United 93 contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: Several passengers can be heard calling their parents shortly before they storm the cockpit. One of them is a very young woman who calls her mother and says that the plane has been hijacked, which results in her mother screaming over the phone to her.
  • Artistic License – Physics: When the plane is moved from side to side, the actors roll accordingly — however when the plane is moved up and down, the actors don't move along with that. Simulating the weightlessness and things flying around the cabin can be expensive and/or dangerous to the actors.
  • Autobiographical Role: In line with the Faux Documentary method, several of the air-traffic controllers and military officers are played by professionals who do those jobs for a living.
    • Even more impressive is that they got Ben Sliney to re-enact his first day on the job.
  • Based on a True Story: Since everyone on the plane died, artistic license had to be used in regards to the specifics of events on the plane, but otherwise everything outside the cabin is kosher.
  • Bias Steamroller: Many critics and audience members were soured on the whole movie by the Villainous Valor.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Many of the terrorist's conversations (both casual and panicked) are untranslated.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Everyone dies, but their sacrifice prevents the terrorists from hitting their intended target.
  • Black Dude Dies First: One of the two pilots is black. Guess.
  • Call Forward: A very dark variety occurs in the first few minutes of the film as a camera focuses in on a storage yard with the Twin Towers in the background.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Triggered by two military aircraft being launched in the completely wrong direction.
  • Defiant to the End: Once the passengers find out that hijacked planes have been flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they abandon all semblance of cooperation with the terrorists and start actively planning their attack from the plane's rear. Even as the plane is plummeting towards the ground, they continue to fight for the controls in an effort to both thwart the terrorists and possibly save themselves. Either way, the passengers were going to make for damned sure that that plane was not going to reach its final destination in Washington D.C.
  • Double Meaning Title: The story is about United Airlines Flight 93, and how the passengers united against their aggressors.
  • Downer Ending: See Based on a True Story.
  • Dramatic Pause: As air-traffic controllers helplessly watch the near collision of United Airlines Flight 175 with a Delta Airlines aircraft in the area.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: The passengers fighting back.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death:
  • Faux Documentary
  • First Day from Hell: Ben Sliney was literally just starting his first day at his new position.
  • Fog of War: Confusion is the only constant in the movie. In an impressive feat of filmmaking, the narrative throughout the film remains coherent.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Everybody knows how this will end.
  • Foreshadowing: After taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport, the plane passes by Lower Manhattan, with one of the hijackers looking out the window at the Twin Towers.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Averted.
  • Heroic BSOD: Everyone on the ground after United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The passengers know what they have to do to save Washington, D.C. from a group of terrorists and they know that the chances of saving themselves is slim, but they don't care because they're bringing the terrorists with them.
  • Hope Spot: More for the characters than the audience — when the passengers realize that two men among them actually have flight experience, it really looks like they might have a chance of safely landing the plane.
  • Improvised Weapon: One of the passengers uses a fire extinguisher as a bludgeoning tool, whereas the hijackers use a food cart and a fake bomb. The flight attendants also boil water, break several wine bottles, and use every sharp eating utensil they can find in the back cabin.
  • Kill 'em All: See Based on a True Story.
  • Live-Action Escort Mission: Getting the pilot and retired air-traffic controller to the cockpit from the back of the plane.
  • Lockdown: 4,200 planes in the air. Who knew which ones had terrorists waiting to strike? Obviously, cue Operation Yellow Ribbon and shut down airspace for two days.
  • Monumental Damage: See Based on a True Story.
  • Mood Motifs:
    • Horns of Battle
    • Drums of Dread
    • Strings of Suspense
  • No Name Given: Very few of the passengers on the plane's names are mentioned. This was done for several reasons:
    • Realistically, no one on the plane could have known they were going to posthumously be part of a historic group, so they probably shared their names with the group of strangers about as much as anyone would on a routine flight — that is, not much.
    • It prevents any specific character from becoming singled out as a hero. The film keeps Todd Beamer's famous "let's roll" line subtle, and it's hard to even tell which character is Todd Beamer until he says it.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: For quite a while, no one can find the military liaison at the National Air Traffic Control Center.
  • Oh Crap!: The beginning of the terrorist's Villainous Breakdown as they start losing control of the passengers.
  • One Child Wail
  • Playing the Heart Strings: As the Pennsylvania field rushes up towards the cockpit window, the sounds fade away to a single string chord at the moment of impact.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Subverted: Todd Beamer's famous utterance of "let's roll" was treated as an anxious throw-away line.
  • Post-9/11 Terrorism Movie: But unlike most other examples, this one is based on the event itself and actively tries to be as accurate as possible.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort: Todd Beamer recites the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm with GTE airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson before they storm the cockpit. A few other passengers join in, too.
  • Present Day Past: On the morning September 11, 2001, you would be pretty hard pressed to find a billboard advertising Chicken Little (released in 2005), UPS' 2003 logo, and a 2004 Embraer Jet.
  • Ramming Always Works: Discussed as one of the options by military officers after learning that the only fighter jets near a hijacked airliner were sent up without ordinance.
  • Real Time: The entire film plays out in this way for the most part, albeit the plane spends a slightly longer amount of time in the air during the film than it did in real life. The actual plane was in the air for approximately one hour and 21 minutes.
  • Reality Ensues: It's pretty clear from the start that the hijacker flying the plane is inexperienced and doesn't really know what the fuck he's doing. There are several times in the movie when he almost crashed the plane prematurely by accident. At one point in the movie, he attempts to make an announcement over the intercom informing the passengers that the plane has been hijacked, only he hits the wrong button and inadvertently tips off flight control about the situation instead. Also worth noting is the fact that he starts pouring sweat not long after taking control of the plane, further emphasizing that this was his first time flying a plane.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Accurately being depicted as the reason for slow response from official channels.
    "When was the last time we had a hijack?"
    "It's been quite a while..."
  • Retirony: A variation in that he's taking a vacation, not a pension.
    "My anniversary's coming up. I'm taking my wife to London for a couple days."
  • Shown Their Work: All the inaccuracies of 9/11 were accurately portrayed. Rather than stripping down the confusion to make things easier for an audience to follow, all of the misinformed fragments are out there, just as it was in real life due to how rapidly things were unfolding. Different groups referred to the wrong planes by the wrong numbers. There were differing reports on how many planes were out there. After American Airlines Flight 77's impact with the Pentagon, the news reported a fire on the National Mall when there was none.
  • Storming the Castle: The cockpit door eventually gets broken down by civilians.
  • Strawman European: There's a German fellow aboard who advocates that the passengers just let the terrorists do their task. When the passengers ignore him, he even goes so far as to shout a warning to the terrorists before being subdued by the passengers. This may very well reflect official policy on airlines prior to 9/11 that passengers should not interfere if there is a hijacking, as well as a cultural divide between Americans (who tend to refuse negotiation) and Europeans (whose hostage situations often ended with negotiated releases).
  • Taking You with Me: From both sides. The hijackers are going to kill the passengers on their suicide mission, and the passengers are going to attempt to save themselves while also stopping the terrorists from reaching their final destination.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: The passengers are well aware that their chances of survival are slim, even with an experienced pilot and retired air-traffic controller among them.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The hijackers' motive.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After several minutes of mounting tension, the terrorists finally seem to realize that they are stuck in an enclosed space with 40+ people who know about the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks and now have nothing to lose. They completely freak out when the enraged passengers storm to the front of the plane and start beating each of them to death.
  • Villainous Valor: In the final act, a tight-knit quartet of fit young men are desperately trying to stop a horde of dozens of relentless men surging at them from the back of the plane — the four men fall one by one despite their best efforts with hastily improvised weapons, each in turn being brutally beaten to death by the unflinching crowd. In any other movie, it would be a poignant Last Stand.
  • Wham Line: For the passengers when they finally realize what's going to happen to them.
    Tom Burnett: Hey, this is a suicide mission. We have to do something. They are not gonna land this plane.
  • Zerg Rush: The passengers' strategy.