Go out on the street and ask just about anyone if it’s time for a 9/11 movie and they will fire back the same response - it’s too soon and too raw.
The events of that catastrophic day have become so ingrained in society that the shorthand term 9/11, carries with it such blood-soaked tragedy that most can’t bear to face the horror of it. But for those affected, those who lost family or friends, there seems to be a different belief.
When Bloody Sunday director Paul Greengrass decided he wanted to make a movie about the fourth hijacked flight on 11 September 2001, he wanted to do it carrying the blessings of the passengers' families but he also wanted their respect for his treatment of the issue.
“In the last few weeks, I must have been asked 300 times, ‘Is it too soon?’” Greengrass tells TF in his hushed tones. “I understand the question but I’ve never been asked it by a family of 9/11. What we’re really asking is ‘Is it too soon for us?’ The truth of this is, these events happen, we see the families, we see them as victims and we feel sorry for them. Then, if we’re not touched directly by them, frankly, we want them to go away because we want to get on with the rest of our lives. We want to wait for the World Cup, go to the pub, prepare for our summer holidays - we want our lives unchanged.”
United 93 was the last plane to be taken over by terrorists that day. The passengers heard about the atrocities in Manhattan and Washington via desperate cell phone calls made to loved-ones after their plane had been taken over – and decided to fight back.
“The flight took off late by chance,” Greengrass states. “It always seemed to me that those 40 passengers were the first people to inhabit our world - the world of ‘What are we going to do? What can we do and what will be?’ By the time that hijack happened at half-past nine, 9/11 was basically all over. The Twin Towers had been hit half an hour before, the Pentagon was being hit as they were being hijacked. That always seemed to be where the drama came from, the thing that would speak to us.”
Shortly after the attacks, Greengrass put together a 25 page treatment on the subject of United 93. “It was always in my mind but I was committed to other projects,” he says. “Then the 9/11 commission was underway so I thought we’d better wait for that report.”
In between time, the Surrey born lenser began collating details from the passengers lives by sitting with the families they had left behind.
“If you want to understand some of the deeper truths around political violence, go and talk to people,” he tells Total Film.com passionately. “Truly, go and talk to people whose lives have been destroyed by it. That’s when you really get to the heart of it. And if you spend time with the Bloody Sunday families, with the Omagh families, with the United 93 families, the extraordinary thing is that you find very little thirst for revenge. Occasionally you find little pockets of it, but it’s marked by its absence.”
As a director used to dramatising the more controversial and sensitive slices of history, Greengrass handles the core-numbing subject with such dexterity and care that it truly leaves the audience feeling like a witness to one of the most shocking moments in memory.
One of the main things you notice about United 93 is that there are no sweeping camera moves or Oscar-hooking dialogue – reality is depicted as naturalistically as possible, delivering a film you can’t help but feel is true.
“I hope so,” he says. “One of the things that was obvious to me about 9/11 and particularly about United 93, was that very quickly, within days, it was appropriated by politicians. Passenger Todd Beamer’s famous phrase, ‘Let’s roll!’ became a kind of political rallying cry and it meant certain things - it meant to endorse certain policies. It always seemed to me that one of the things that a film about 9/11 should rightfully do was to address this central human event, free from the political appropriations, and see what that told us. I think this succeeds.”