'United 93': The Real Picture
How accurate is "United 93," Universal Pictures' new movie depicting the drama and heroism aboard the fourth plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001? The answer tells us a lot about Hollywood and government in the age of terrorism: The film is closer to the truth than every account the government put out before the 9/11 commission's investigation. Its release marks our passage through the post-9/11 looking glass, with our wildest fairy tales now spun not in Hollywood, but in Washington.
The facts of 9/11 are as simple as they are grim. The military officers in charge of the air defense mission did not receive notice of any of the four hijackings in time to respond before the planes crashed. The passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93 really were alone. They were all that stood between the hijackers and the Capitol (or possibly the White House). That is the core reality of that morning, and "United 93" gets it right.
The movie does make some concessions to drama. As one of the commission staffers whom the filmmakers consulted (on an unpaid basis) about what happened on 9/11, I believe, for instance, that the movie's climax shows the passengers penetrating farther into the cockpit than the evidence supports.
But compare the harsh truth that the movie accurately portrays with this account from a documentary special that aired on ABC on Sept. 11, 2002:
Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield: "The decision was made to try to go intercept Flight 93."
Vice President Cheney: "The significance of saying to a pilot that you are authorized to shoot down that plane full of Americans, is, a, you know, it's an order that had never been given before."
. . . Montague: "The vice president briefed into the conference that the president had given us permission to shoot down innocent civilian aircraft that threatened Washington, D.C. Again, in the National Military Command Center, everything stopped for a short second as the impact of those words [sank] in."
. . . Charles Gibson, ABC News: "Colonel Bob Marr is in command at the Northeast Air Defense Sector base in Rome, New York."
Marr: "I got the call and I, the words that I remember as clear as day [were], 'We will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground.' "
Gibson: "Marr orders his controllers, 'T ell the pilots to intercept Flight 93.' "
. . . Marr: "And we of course passed that on to the pilots. United Airlines Flight 93 will not be allowed to reach Washington, D.C."
Like the other government versions of 9/11, this account has all the pulse-pounding suspense of a classic movie thriller. It is also, as we discovered at the commission and as "United 93" makes clear, almost completely untrue.