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Posted on Jul 7, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Flight 93 – Movie Review

Armchair General

flight93.jpgI expect most of the people reading this will recall precisely what they were doing when they first heard about the terrorist attacks of September the 11th 2001. My country was not even a victim of the outrages of that day and yet I remember vividly seeing the horrified faces of my work colleagues as I emerged from an afternoon meeting to be told that America was under attack. As we clustered around a PC monitor in shocked silence, we watched the live images of smoke pouring from the twin towers of the World Trade Centre far across the Atlantic in New York.

As we all know, the buildings had been hit by two airliners piloted by terrorists on suicide missions. A third hijacked plane had smashed into the Pentagon causing further loss of life. What we could not know was that at that very moment, the occupants of a fourth plane were fighting for their very lives aboard another airliner heading for a still-unconfirmed destination. This was Flight 93, a regular service between Newark International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.

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Flight 93 is one of two films released this year dramatising the struggle for control of the plane as it careens through the sky having been hijacked by four terrorists in mid-flight. The second film, United 93, is a cinematic release dealing with essentially the same story.

With the film now released on DVD, I must confess that I was initially fearful that watching events unfold in a movie setting might be rather too voyeuristic, however the appalling events of September the 11th are an important story that needs to be told, and more importantly, remembered for the future. It’s also important to note that a Royalty for every DVD sold is sent to the Flight 93 Memorial Fund.

This made for TV movie depicts the story from multiple viewpoints. To begin with, we meet the First Officer, LeRoy Homer (Gary Commock), as he leaves his family to head for work on that fateful day. As Homer waves goodbye to his daughter, the Director (Peter Markle) appears to want emphasise the everyday nature of Homer’s job, and I would be surprised if viewers were not instantly hooked into the story as I was, since of course we know that he would never see her or his wife again.

We are next introduced to the main characters of the piece, the passengers and the hijackers as they pass through the security checks and board the plane. Concentrating on half a dozen of those aboard the plane, it soon becomes apparent who the main players in the story will be as we meet Todd Beamer (played by Brennan Elliott), Mark Bingham (Ty Olsson), Elizabeth Wainio (Laura Mennell) and the leader of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah (Amin Nazemzadeh).

Whilst the plane takes off with most of its seats unfilled, the film settles into the routine of the flight as attendants serve food and drink and the passengers relax for their journey. Only the nervous looks between Ziad and his henchmen serve to demonstrate that all is not as it should be, and when one of the hijackers heads into the toilet cubicle to begin unloading a most unusual piece of carry-on baggage, the tension mounts.

In addition to a comentary by the Director, the Flight 93 DVD contains a short featurette detailing the making of the film within which the film makers indicate that for obvious reasons, a lot of the unrecorded conversations between passengers and hijackers are made up, but that they endeavoured to remain consistent and accurate to the type of language used by those on board.

The horrific thing about watching Flight 93 is that we all know how it will end, and yet one remains transfixed as events unfold. Donning red bandanas, the passengers are initially bemused as to what is going on. But the hijackers’ intentions are soon made clear, and as they swiftly and bloodily take control of the flight, viewers are thrown into the confusion and terror experienced by the passengers as they first realise what has happened, and ponder what is going to happen next. As a viewer, I felt the frustration, helplessness and rage of the passengers as they were threatened and cajoled by the knife-wielding terrorists.

With Ziad taking the helm of the plane, there is a brief flashback sequence showing him training for his mission, seated in a cardboard cut-out representation of the cockpit, memorising where every button and control is located. And yet his notes are not perfect, with the plane jumping around in the air, Ziad accidentally announces the hijacking over an open channel to the FAA control centre.

Events progress swiftly, with the fear and concern of the passengers reflected on the ground as we visit Air Traffic Controllers and White House staff managing an ever escalating crisis. By now, the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon are ablaze, and as the passengers on board Flight 93 make covert telephone calls using cellphones and airphones to the authorities and loved ones on the ground, it becomes clear that they too must be on board a plane heading for another suicidal mission into an American landmark building. They must make a decision, either remain seated in fear of the hijackers who announce that they have a bomb, or retake the plane in a desperate attempt to survive, or at least prevent the terrorists from hitting their assigned target.

Unfolding almost in real time, the passengers take turns to formulate their plans, and speak to family members to say their tearful goodbyes. The scenes of passengers who know they are going to die saying farewell to their partners or parents on the ground cannot fail to bring a lump to the throat and remind the viewer that these were innocent ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation over which they have almost no control.

The last scenes aboard the plane are brutal and primal as the passengers mount their desperate bid for control of Flight 93 before the final, inevitable end.

We all know what that end was, and yet, despite this fact, there is a hope throughout the film that the passengers might succeed against the odds and retake the plane. Although they failed to do so, they did succeed in stopping a greater loss of life and prevented the terrorist hijackers from striking at an important American symbol – likely to have been either the White House or the Capital Building in Washington DC.

And throughout the film, I could not help but cast my mind back to what I was doing 5,000 miles away in England whilst this drama was unfolding, and I recalled thinking at the time that after September the 11th, things would never be the same again…

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