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Film / United 93

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September 11, 2001
Four airplanes were hijacked.
Three of them reached their target.
This is the story of the fourth.

"This is a suicide mission. We have to do something. They are not going to land this plane. They are not going to take us back to the airport. I don't think we have much of a choice."
Tom Burnett

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. 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 cast 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.

United 93 contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Aborted Arc: It's an intentional choice, but once things get going on the titular flight, all the plot relating to air traffic controllers and the military go out the window. The only thing that gets revealed at the end after the Smash to Black is that the nearest fighter jet was a hundred miles away from this plane, and by the time anyone had a more concrete idea of what was going on, United 93 had already hit the ground.
  • Artistic License – History: Downplayed. The movie makes a few assumptions about what happened on the flight that are unconfirmed but likely.
    • The film shows all the passengers making it to the cockpit with a Zerg Rush and trying to retake control of the plane. While this really happened on the actual United 93 flight, it's disputed whether the passengers managed to breach the cockpit or not in real life, and it's ultimately something that history will never know for sure. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the passengers did not breach the cockpit, the families of the victims believe they did, and independent studies of the flight recording suggest the possibility of at least one passenger breaching the cockpit and fighting for control of the yoke.
    • In this movie, the US Capitol Building is the target of United 93. In real life, it's unknown what the fourth target was; it could have been the Capitol Building, but it's been speculated that the White House could have also been the fourth target.
  • 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.
  • Ascended Extra: Sort of. Despite there being four flight attendants onboard United 93 Sandra Bradshaw serves as a supporting character while the others are given much smaller roles. For example Sandra Bradshaw tried to contact the cockpit after they hijacking, she frantically tries to call the ground but fails, she noticed the pilots are dead, she communicates with Tom Burnett on creating weapons to help take back the plane, calls her husband to say she will quit her job if she gets out alive and is seen several times during the climax helping the men get forward towards the cockpit.
  • Asshole Victim: In this version of events, each member of the terrorist team is killed by the passengers one by one. You will not sympathize with them for obvious reasons.
  • 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.
  • Big Applesauce: The skyline of New York City is seen from the window to news reports of planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Many of the terrorist's conversations (both casual and panicked) are untranslated.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Heavily more bitter than sweet. Three of the attacks succeed as planned, demolishing the World Trade Center in New York City while seriously damaging the Pentagon in Washington DC, preceding one of the most prolonged international conflicts in America's history. However, there's something of a silver lining in the tragedy, as though everyone on the fourth plane dies, their sacrifice prevents the terrorists from hitting their intended target of the United States Capitol, saving hundreds of lives.
  • Black Dude Dies First: One of the two pilots is black. Guess. Something of Artistic License, as the real-life black co-pilot is believed to have lingered for some time in the cockpit.
  • Blatant Lies: After seeing the bodies of the pilots a frightened and frantic Sandra Bradshaw lies to the passengers everything will be OK and they are 'going back to the airport'. Justified as flight attendants are trained to do so to prevent panic but it is obvious she was a terrible liar as her cracked voice gave away something wasn't right.
  • 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.
    • The Twin Towers are also visible out the plane's windows after it takes off from New Jersey.
  • Closest Thing We Got: As the passengers plan their revolt, they ask if anyone can fly a plane. One of them says he can, but is only trained on single-engine planes. Another passenger says he is a retired air traffic controller and will be able to help him land. The passengers really don't have any better options, so it's them or nothing.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Triggered by two military aircraft being launched in the wrong direction.
  • Death of a Child: Though there were no children onboard United 93, Laura Grandcolas was three months pregnant during the film, and her unborn baby died along with her at the end of the film. And even if the plane didn't crash, it is very likely Laura Grandcolas would have had a miscarriage from all the chaos and the plane jerking violently. Also there were children aboard the other three planes used in the attacks that day, with the youngest victim being only two years old.
  • 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. The original title was supposed to be Flight 93 (you can see it on archived snapshots of the film's website), but was changed to United 93 to avoid confusion with a TV movie of the same name that came out shortly before.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • The final passenger running onto 93 and being relieved to have gotten there in time.
    • The passengers all have a Hope Spot in the fact that two of the men in their group have flight experience. Of course, the audience already knows that everyone on board is going to die, due to the film being Based on a True Story where there were no survivors.
  • 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 fight back with a Zerg Rush to the cockpit, managing to take it over and fighting the terrorists. While they don't save themselves, they end up saving lives at the Capitol by crashing the plane. This is shown symbolically when a picture of the US Capitol Building flies off of the plane's dashboard during the struggle, indicating that the terrorists will not reach their target.
  • Eagleland: The film shows that Americans will fight back against aggressors, if given the chance.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: Being Based on a True Story involving a plane crash that had no survivors, nobody got off of United 93 alive once it was in the air. While the plane is shown descending straight for the ground, there's a Smash to Black before impact. Instead, there's an ending card that says that nobody got out of the crash alive.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Once the passengers knew they were likely to be either killed in crashing the plane into an important American building, killed in being blown up or being killed retaking the plane, they naturally took the last choice.
  • First Day from Hell: Ben Sliney was literally just starting his first day at his new position. Then a terrorist attack happened.
  • Fog of War: Confusion is the only constant in the movie, as the terrorist attacks cause conflicting and incorrect information to get relayed back and forth.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It's Based on a True Story of a plane crash in which there are no survivors. As a result, the audience knows that everyone aboard United Airlines Flight 93 is going to die — but its intended target will be spared.
  • 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. At the time that Flight 93 took off, the North Tower was less than five minutes away from being hit.note 
  • For Want Of A Nail: The hijacking of Flight 93 has several differences from the other three plots. The plane took off 40 minutes late due to congested runways, Ziad Jarrah didn't begin the actual hijacking until nearly an hour into the flight, and there were only three "muscle" hijackers instead of four. Had any or all of these factors not happened, the passenger revolt would have likely been unsuccessful.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The ending of the film contains a Smash to Black right before the plane hits the ground instead of a crash, impact, or explosion being shown. Instead, there's a card which explains that no one survived the impact.
  • Hate Sink: With the possible exception of Jarrah, all the hijackers are this for very obvious reasons.
  • Hero of Another Story: The passengers and crew on the other 3 planes, who unlike those on United 93, never got the chance to fight back.
  • 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 are slim at best. But they don't care, because they're taking the terrorists with them. Indeed, when the flight goes down in Pennsylvania, there's a Smash to Black along with a card that says the crash had no survivors.
  • 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. Of course, since the audience knows what happened in real life, it's only in-universe that the passengers get some hope.
  • I Want My Mommy!: 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.
  • 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.
  • Karmic Death: The terrorists don't reach their objective and don't die in the quick and collected manner they planned, but screaming in fear and impotence while being beaten and stabbed with improvised weapons by the same passengers they had just terrorized in the same way. The only one with some control of his death is Jarrah, who was ironically the most hesitant of the four.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Tragically averted by Mark Bingham, the last passenger to board the plane. He nearly missed the plane due to oversleeping, had he slept in longer or been unable to get to the airport on time, he'd likely still be alive today.
  • 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.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Averted, since one of the female flight assistants is brutally killed. And it goes without saying that, since it's an "Everybody Dies" Ending, all of the women on the plane die alongside all of the men.
  • Monumental Damage:
    • Both of the World Trade Center's towers are hit with passenger airplanes, with archive footage of the second crash included in the film. However, the collapse of both towers is not shown. The South Tower's collapse actually happens during the revolt, 4 minutes before Flight 93 crashes, with the North Tower's collapse happening 25 minutes after that; however, by the time that the first collapse happens, the film stops focusing on what happened on the ground in favor of following the story of the passengers as they revolt against the hijackers.
    • The Pentagon is later confirmed to be the third target, although we are never shown the destruction.
    • Averting the destruction of the Capitol Building is the goal of the protagonists. Though they are unable to take back control of the plane, it instead crashes into an empty field, sparing the final target but killing everyone onboard the plane.
  • 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, but it's hard to even tell which character is Todd Beamer until he says it.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: While Mohammed Atta's accidental broadcast to ATC from American 11 and the crash of United 175 into the South Tower are depicted, the other 3 hijackings are never depicted on-screen.
  • 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 features this from them, as they start losing control of the passengers. It's accompanied by the terrorists realizing that they're hopelessly outnumbered, the passengers are likely about to kill them even if it means their own deaths, and they can't possibly stop everybody from reaching the cockpit of the plane.
  • 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, along with a Smash to Black.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: Subverted. Todd Beamer utters "let's roll" as the call to action for the passengers to stop cooperating and start fighting back. While Todd Beamer actually did this in the real life hijacking, Beamer yelled this out loud; in the movie, it's whispered as an anxious throw-away line, and it's very subtle.
  • 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. Right after that, Beamer says "let's roll", and the passengers start fighting back.
  • Present-Day Past: On the morning of 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. Furthermore, 375 Pearl Street is shown with the post-2002 Verizon logo instead of the Bell Atlantic logo it would have had in 2001.
  • Pre-Sacrifice Final Goodbye: Several of the passengers and crew call their loved ones from the plane before the revolt to give their goodbyes in the event they don't make it. In Todd Beamer's case, he's only able to call an airphone operator, Lisa Jefferson, but has her promise him that she'll give his love to his wife and sons if he doesn't survive. (And indeed, he did not survive.)
  • 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. Also, based in reality.
  • 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 before it crashed; this movie is exactly half an hour longer than that, at one hour and 51 minutes, though it's about twenty minutes before the plane actually takes off on-film.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Although there are subtitles at first for the Arabic dialogue, they only apply to some of the scenes, with the scenes of terrorist violence usually lacking them. They're barely present during the climax where the passengers are storming the cockpit, but given what's happening, one can logically assume what's being said is related to the passengers getting closer and closer.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Though he is the lead hijacker and pilot, deep down, Ziad Jarrah is frightened to go along with the plan. He clearly hesitates to give the sign and his fellow terrorists who are impatient go ahead anyway. Like in real life, Ziad phones his girlfriend one final time implying he had no other choice but to hijack the plane as he made an oath.
  • 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 Fog of War 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 no such fire.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: One of the flight stewardesses Sandra Bradshaw while helping a colleague deal with a mortally wounded passenger notices the pilots have been killed after seeing Saeed al Ghamdi and Ahmed al Nami carry the body of one of the pilots. It was thanks to her the victims realised the plane was being flown by terrorists.
  • Smash to Black: The ending. While the plane is descending towards a field, there's no impact shown. Instead, the music builds to a crescendo, the field gets closer and closer... and then suddenly, the music hits a sting and the screen goes black. The last shot of the movie is a card that explains that the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, with no one surviving the impact.
  • Simultaneous Arcs: A few.
    • United 93 takes off from Newark just as the hijacking of United 175 begins.
    • The South Tower's collapse happens 2 minutes into the revolt on United 93.
  • Stock Footage: A number of actual news reports are used in the film, most notably when the South Tower is hit. The control tower sees United 175 coming in towards Manhattan, following the plane for a few seconds, and then it cuts to the broadcast that showed the impact live.
  • Storming the Castle: The cockpit door eventually gets broken down by civilians when they Zerg Rush the cockpit.
  • Straight Gay: Mark Bingham, the passenger who beats al-Haznawi to death with a fire extinguisher when the passengers headed for the cockpit. In Real Life, his family stated that he was openly gay which most people would not have known given that he looks like your athletic Average Joe who likes hard music.
  • Strawman Political: 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). It should also be noted that the production was unable to get the support of Christian Adams' widow, as it was still too raw for her. The actor who played him, Erich Redman, later said that his intention was to portray him as someone who "didn't make rash decisions".
  • Suicide Attack: 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.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker flying the plane, almost crashes the plane by accident a few times. At one point, he attempts to make an announcement over the intercom informing the passengers that the plane has been hijacked, but hits the wrong button and tells flight control about the situation instead. Also, he starts pouring sweat not long after taking control of the plane, further emphasizing that this was his first time flying a commercial airplane. In real life, he had flown smaller planes as part of his training, and later flight simulations. But just because he could have flown smaller planes doesn't mean he can fly a full-sized airliner, as he finds out the hard way.
  • Taking You with Me: The passengers on the plane eventually become aware of what's happened in New York and Washington, DC, and that they are more than likely going to die on this flight. As a result, they go down swinging by all rushing the terrorists at once and overwhelming them with sheer numbers.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: The passengers are well aware that their chances of survival are slim at best, even with an experienced pilot and retired air-traffic controller among them. But the passengers figure that if they're going to die, they may as well take the terrorists with them.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The hijackers' motive. For them actually, as the opposite of this is intended for the world they intended to create.
  • Villain of Another Story: The hijackers aboard the other three planes, though we do hear hijacker ringleader Mohammed Atta on Flight 11's radio and are shown archive footage of United 175 hitting the South Tower.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After several minutes of mounting tension, the terrorists realize that they're stuck in an enclosed space with people who know about the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, and now have nothing to lose by fighting back. They completely freak out when the enraged passengers storm to the front of the plane, and start beating each of them to try and regain control.
  • 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. Counts as a Last Villain Stand. The youngest of the hijackers looks like he is still in his teens, and he puts up a disturbingly valiant fight alone against the passengers when they try to rush to the cockpit. First with a cart, and then with a fire extinguisher before he's overwhelmed and killed.
  • 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. They are not gonna take us back to the airport.
  • Wham Shot:
    • The first view of the WTC from the air control tower, smoking while the controllers are still discussing where the first hijacked plane went.
    • For the flight attendant who goes into First Class to treat a passenger who was stabbed. She sees the bodies of the pilots being taken out of the cockpit and relays this to the other passengers. In past hijackings, the pilots would remain in control of the plane while the hijackers directed them back to the airport to make their demands. This makes the passengers aware that this is not a typical hijacking.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Ben Sliney's reaction when he is told that the desk that is supposed to handle hijackings and even their military liaison are not available.
  • Zerg Rush: The passengers' strategy at the end of the movie is to rush the cockpit all at once, with the mentality that if they're all going to die anyways, they may as well go down swinging. This strategy effectively works, as the overwhelmed terrorists can't stop the rush of passengers from reaching the cockpit. By the time the passengers breach the cockpit's door, the terrorists are in a full-on Villainous Breakdown when they realize that the situation is now effectively hopeless. The best they can do is hold onto the controls as tight as they can, resulting in the plane crashing into a field when this in-fighting causes the plane to lose control.