For much of the movie, you get to look over the shoulders of paunchy middle-aged traffic controllers with bad buzz haircuts as they stare in bewilderment at numbers and x’s and lines on green screens. The story operates very much like Greek tragedy in the way you already know what will happen, so the simple everyday process of boarding a commercial flight in
Greengrass also understands dramatic pacing as the traffic controllers in the towers over
Behind the scenes, many of the actors playing the passengers have had emotional communications with the families who lost a loved one on the flight. In stark contrast to the usual star-making process, these actors have researched playing specific ordinary Americans, and they improvise many of their lines depending on the situation. The resulting dialogue is banal enough, but it doesn’t distract from the film’s emotional intensity. Greengrass develops suspense mostly through the accelerating language of the flight officials. In the military’s operation center Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), the commander has been simulating a jet fighter attack, but now the hijackings have forced him to work on a real event instead. No one either in the military or the FAA was remotely ready for the first attack on the
Does the film have any flaws? I had a hard time watching the continual use of jerky handheld cameras, and the editing of this frenetic style picks up speed, in effect punishing the viewer who would just like a little break in the movement for a moment. Greengrass seems afraid of boring the audience, and he also probably recognized that any lull in the action would be perceived as manipulative. His reality TV style keeps the film raw, but it is also relentless.
Flight 93 still raises the question as to whether or not one should make a film of, and profit from, recent terrorist acts. But by approaching the project with humility and an unflinching desire for accuracy, Greengrass forces the viewer to face the annihilation of everyone on board. Once the passengers found out about the other planes hitting the WTC and the Pentagon, they chose to try to take back Flight 93 from terrorists menacing them with knives and what looked like a bomb strapped to one man’s chest. That moment of decision still reverberates in the midst of the film’s many uncertainties, and that is what makes Flight 93 so powerful.