When Hollywood Makes History

The FAA's Ben Sliney plays himself in
The FAA's Ben Sliney plays himself in "United 93." (By Jonathan Olley -- Universal Studios)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

"United 93," Hollywood's first big-budget film about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is faithful to the major aspects of the tragic morning it depicts. The movie tracks the key events detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report, the most definitive source on the subject: the commandeering of the United jet by four terrorists, the panic of the passengers and the heroic rebellion that ended with the plane crashing in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

But the movie, which opens nationwide today, is a dramatic re-creation that includes scenes and images that go far beyond what is known about the attacks.

Those scenes raise questions: How far can a dramatic movie go in imposing its own reality before it distorts the public's understanding of the event? And with memories of 9/11 still vivid and raw, is it too soon for such films to be made?

The questions have special relevance as film producers prepare other 9/11-related projects. Oliver Stone, who portrayed the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the result of a conspiracy in "JFK," is the director of this summer's "World Trade Center." Sony Pictures, meanwhile, is developing the film "102 Minutes," based on the bestseller about the time span between the first tower's crash and its collapse. A TV miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission Report is also in the works.

"United 93's" director, Paul Greengrass, has said he sought to create the "plausible truth" of what happened, given that many details are unknown.

The film asserts that the hijackers' intended target was the Capitol. In one scene, Ziad Jarrah, the Lebanese terrorist who piloted the plane, props a picture of the building on the cockpit's console, imposing a cinematic answer to a question that the 9/11 Commission could not resolve: whether the terrorists were trying to hit the Capitol or the White House. Investigators said that point was a source of contention among the 9/11 plotters, with Osama bin Laden favoring a strike on the White House and others, including Mohamed Atta, favoring the Capitol.

"United 93" also suggests that the terrorists killed the pilot and co-pilot, for example, but what occurred is unclear. A United 93 flight recorder picked up the terrorists ordering someone repeatedly to "sit down" and discussing whether to "bring the pilot back" late in the hijacking.

"United 93" also shows the passengers breaching the cockpit with a beverage cart and wrestling the terrorists for control as the plane plummets. Although the 9/11 report states that the passengers fought back in the flight's final moments, the commission had no indication that the passengers entered the cockpit. The report suggests the opposite: "The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them."

Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, says researchers consulted numerous sources, including the 9/11 Commission Report, military and civilian aviation authorities, and more than 100 family members and friends of the victims. The movie's advisers included Ben Sliney, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration's Command Center in Herndon on Sept. 11; Sliney portrays himself in the film.

Lloyd Levin, a "United 93" co-producer, acknowledges that the film went beyond known facts about the flight, but he justifies the movie's approach as artistically necessary. "Our mandate was not the same as the 9/11 Commission Report," Levin said. "Our mandate was to what Paul wanted to say with this movie. We're not journalists. Paul is an artist."

He called some of the questionable depictions "choices we had to make." Whether the passengers actually breached the cockpit is "a moot point, because at that point you're in the area of metaphor," he said.

Those choices might satisfy moviegoers but they rankle those interested in a more literal portrait of the events of Sept. 11.

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