Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is more than a harrowing dramatization of the events of September 11th, 2001. It’s also a profound treatise on the significance of information, and how ignorance leads to irrationality, uncertainty, and fear. This piece will look at three aspects of the film and how each is intimately tied to the availability of information: the plot, the characters, and the themes. The plot is revealed slowly, as a sense of dramatic irony permeates the spectator’s interpretation of the events. Characterization is established by reactions to the inexplicable, and then corresponding responses as more information becomes known. Even the ultimate thematic statements hinge in the treatment information in United 93. Greengrass concludes that information is power – especially in the hands of individuals.
Before the first image appears in United 93, the audience has complete information. The events of 9/11 were a cultural. Hence, it is practically impossible to tell the story of United 93 without a heavy sense of dramatic irony. Though the characters on the screen are unaware of what is happening to them, the spectators know everything. Greengrass exploits this asymmetry, allowing it to permeate the entire plot of his film.
United 93 begins on the morning of 9/11 and covers the events up until flight United 93 crashes near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. At the beginning, the tension comes from the aforementioned dramatic irony as we watch the terrorists pray and prepare. They have the knowledge, and thus complete control of the situation, always acting with purpose. As the morning unfolds, we meet some of the other key players: Ben Sliney, the national operations manager of the FAA, passengers aboard United 93, and members of the military preparing for exercises. Each will react to the lack of information similarly: with fear and confusion, but as they gain knowledge, their reactions differ significantly.
The tension in United 93 evolves from a complete lack of knowledge as characters reel from events that are beyond their immediate understanding. Time and time again, those with the information are in control, and those without it are terrorized. The audience and the characters never see the first plane hit the first tower, and no character has any idea what is going on – even the terrorists learn about the attacks second-hand, though when they do they are able to apply their context and celebrate.
The turn occurs when information starts leaking in, both on the ground and in the air. Once Sliney puts enough information together he is decisive, and completely grounds all air traffic over the United States. This is a single individual applying his knowledge towards a rational decision. The main piece of information that elicits this decision is actually seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. But, smaller pieces of information contribute as well. Translating “we have planes”, plural, establishes the fact that these incidents are part of a greater plan. As the air traffic controller begins to recognize the pattern, more planes are suspected of being hijacked.
In the air, each scrap of information is even more empowering. First, the passengers are ignorant and scared, but a series of revelations invigorate them. They learn that other planes have been hijacked and crashed, that the pilot and a flight attendant has been killed, that they are turning, and they hypothesize that the bomb must be a fake. They’re even encouraged by a passenger who knows how to fly a plane, giving their plot to re-take the controls an explicit goal. Once it becomes clear that their captors are on a suicide mission, they transform from kowtowing hostages into pragmatic warriors looking for weapons, organizing, and drawing battle plans.
The availability of information dictates the action, tension, and narrative throughout United 93. As new pieces of information fall into place, we recognize the forward momentum on screen. Each bit of knowledge brings the narrative closer and closer to the climax of the film. Greengrass’s control of the information and the way it resonates with the story is masterful. Now, we’ll see how he makes information the focus of dialogue, and how he directly contrasts the characters in the sky with those on the ground.
The characters in United 93 require realism. This is a film that would not work with Nicolas Cage in a leading role. It is critical that the passengers of United 93 be next-door neighbors, not famous actors. Greengrass casts unknowns, but takes further steps by casting some people to play themselves, such as Ben Sliney. This casting technique provides a blank canvas for Greengrass – he can build up whatever he wants from this foundation of realism. He chooses to showcase the efficacy of sovereign individuals when confronted by extraordinary circumstances, and contrasts this with the plodding incoherence of the government officials. Again information is the focal point, and Greengrass draws attention to this through stunning repetition in the dialogue.
Throughout United 93, information is directly referenced in the dialogue, and the characters are severely lacking it. No knowledge means no action; the mind cannot act without information. The air traffic controller that first discovers a potential hijacking says things like, “I don’t know”, “I have no idea”, “I’m relaying the information”, and later, “I have no info”. Looking at the smoke from the first impact, Sliney asks, “A small plane, is that confirmed?”, complains that he can’t get in contact with the military, and when he eventually decides to close US air space, his reasoning is firmly rooted in their level of ignorance, “Until we figure out what to do about it, we’re shutting down”, he says. The confusion of the military is even worse. They struggle to get authority to scramble fighter jets, then send them the wrong way. They don’t receive any explicit rules of engagement, and then when they do it includes no shoot-down authority, and no clearance to even ram-and-eject. The title card at the end of the film reveals that when the fighter jets received shoot-down authority (far too late), even this information was kept from them.
Ignorance freezes the officials on the ground; it merely pauses the passengers of United 93. They begin scared and passive. They fear the bomb that they think is real, and they believe that they may come through this ordeal alive. When the minds of the passengers gain knowledge, their resolve is strengthened, and a plan forms. Even in the climactic tumult, new pieces of information embolden them – the discovery that the bomb is a fake, that they can use the dining cart as a battering ram, and so forth. This fervent action contrasts the passivity on the ground. Up in the air, armed with information and resolve, individuals spring into action.
Though knowledge is being gained on the ground, there are critical points where it is not communicated well. Greengrass takes the position that the authority figures communicate poorly and their reliance on certainty and chains of command handcuffs them. The passengers follow an almost identical arc, but reach a more triumphant and efficacious end. They begin ignorant, but slowly gather information. Unlike the important decision-makers on the ground, the passengers utilize their new-found knowledge to formulate plans. Then they act. This is not purposeless action. It is not whim, but cognizant and purposeful, complete with full rational justification. Their gambit fails to result in salvation, but the title cards paint them as heroes. Their actions may not have saved themselves, but they prevented further carnage and death, which is much more than can be said for Mr. President.
This is the thesis of Greengrass’s United 93. The film pivots on the gathering of information and the decisions made once it has been acquired. Confusion becomes explanation, fear becomes resolve, and paralysis becomes action. Then the director extends this concept and remarks on the importance of proper action. Greengrass reveals the hesitancy of government and bureaucratic hierarchy to act in a crisis, and instead shows how sovereign individuals hold the true power during these times. This is a poignant message to deliver to a populace enmeshed in a post-9/11 America where offensives rage overseas, government agencies survey their citizens at home and openly misinform, and the individual is routinely minimized, shunted, and manipulated.
Though originally targeted at the Bush administration, the themes of United 93 resound as loudly today as they did over a decade ago. Greengrass offers us a line in the sand: place trust in sovereign, informed individuals, or in Government? The director’s position is clear: he stands with the heroes of United Flight 93.