‘We’ll never know exactly what happened on that plane’: how accurate is United 93?Paul Greengrass did everything to ensure his film about the horrors – and heroism – of United Flight 93 was right. But how could it be? By Tom Fordy10 September 2021 • 2:31pm Paul Greengrass's United 93 was filmed aboard a decommissioned Boeing 757, mounted on hydraulic gimbals CREDIT: Rex“Let’s roll.” In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this phrase became both a bumper sticker slogan and call to action – a snappy soundbite for American heroism in the face of terror. The words were said by Todd Beamer, a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, as he spoke to switchboard supervisor Lisa Jefferson on the ground. Flight 93 was one of the four planes hijacked on the morning of September 11, 2001 – but the only plane to not reach its target. The passengers fought back against the hijackers. The plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, hitting the ground at 563mph. There had been 44 people aboard: 33 passengers – including four terrorists – and seven crew. In Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film, United 93, “Let’s roll” is played down – one of several exchanges between passengers as they plot to regain control of the plane. The truth of the story in United 93 is collective, unified heroism. Released just five years after 9/11, United 93 was hit with immediate criticism. Was it too soon? Should it be made at all Now 20 years after 9/11, there’s a more interesting moral quandary: how to base a film of a true story – and an emotionally charged one – when the definitive truth can never really be known. “We’re never going to know exactly what happened on that plane,” says Tom McMillan, author of a book on the events. “Two of the 9/11 plotters are down in Guantanamo Bay. They’ve been interviewed. They know what was supposed to happen. But they don’t know what did happen. Everyone who knows died.” McMillan credits the film for its accuracy. In researching his book – Flight 93: The Story, the Aftermath, and the Legacy of American Courage on 9/11 – McMillan came to many of the same conclusions as United 93. Paul Greengrass began exploring the idea of a Flight 93 film soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. He approached investigative journalist Michael Bronner to join as a researcher and associate producer. Bronner warned him how films that take liberties with historical fact – something that would have been heightened in the immediate post-9/11 world – can be “problematic”. “No, no,” Greengrass replied. “This is going to be intensely researched, and our goal is just to tell what happened, to show what happened and not sentimentalise, not take any kind of liberties beyond that.” Bronner spent time with air traffic controllers, military, and the families of the victims. At the time, the families were the only people to have heard the cockpit voice recorder. “The victims' families want this film made,” said Greengrass at the time. “Every single one of them.” Bronner recalled how reuniting the air traffic controllers helped them to jog each other’s memories, piecing together how the events unfolded on the ground – who said what, when, and in what order. A curious part of the film is the portrayal of lead hijacker, Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla). With the passengers being a collective protagonist, Jarrah becomes a de facto lead character. He’s almost sympathetic.
Fight 93 hijacker Ziad Samir Jarrah CREDIT: AP At 5.01am on September 11, Jarrah called his girlfriend back in Germany. In the film, he waits until he’s in the departure lounge. The film critic Stephen Prince, writing in his book Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, suggested a cruel dramatic irony. “Jarrah’s claiming a privilege for himself that he will deny to the others,” wrote Prince. “The ability to say goodbye to loved ones.” Something Greengrass doesn’t detail is how many of the passengers were on Flight 93 by chance. Ten passengers had been booked on other flights or reserved seats at the last minute. Mark Bingham, a rugby player who was later celebrated as one of the key heroes, almost didn’t make the flight. Indeed, the film does show Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson) rushing and boarding the plane last. Attention to detail on the ground is impressive. For scenes that flit between the National Air Traffic Control Center in Virginia, the Boston and New York Air Traffic Control centres, and the Northeast Air Defense Command Center in Rome, New York, Greengrass cast real air traffic controllers and military personnel who were there on the day. He put radar data from 9/11 on the scopes, so the controllers could react in real time. Greengrass also cast United Airlines pilots and stewards as the Flight 93 crew. It was partly about accountability. “That restricts a director’s flights of fancy,” he told The Times. “Nobody will watch this film and say, ‘That can’t happen.’” FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney playing himself in United 93. Chief among the “real” cast members is Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) National Operations Manager – essentially the man in charge of airspace across the US. Incredibly, 9/11 was his first day on the job (though he had plenty of FAA experience). “Nobody knows what happened in that operations room like Ben Sliney,” says Tom McMillan. It was Sliney’s decision to ground all commercial and private aeroplanes as the hijackings unfolded. Originally, Sliney was just a consultant on the film. Greengrass had cast a professional actor as Sliney, but the actor was struggling with Greengrass’s loose, verité style of working. With just three days to shoot these particular scenes, they’d already wasted two. “I was looking at disaster down the barrel of a lens,” Greengrass later said. Sliney would have to play himself. Michael Bronner recalled slipping a note under the door of Sliney’s hotel room: “Ben, the production requests that you wear your suit tomorrow. This is not an exercise. This is not a test.” Those words echoed a real-life message from the Boston Center to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), warning that a hijacked plane was on its way to New York. NORAD was in fact carrying out an exercise that morning, which is referenced in the film. (Bronner was surprised to get clearance to hear the NORAD tape recordings from that day. “The signing of the Declaration of Independence took less coordination,” a Pentagon PR officer told him.) The film’s timeline does take some small creative liberties to crank the tension. At 8.25am, Boston received a message from hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 (the first plane to hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 – the second, American Airlines Flight 175, hit at 9.03) which included the words “We have some planes”. Director Paul Greengrass on the set of United 93 CREDIT: Shutterstock The message was garbled and had to be checked. “We have some planes” wasn’t confirmed until 9.05am – after both planes had hit. In the film, the phrase is played as a warning of what’s yet to happen. Tom McMillan credits Greengrass for capturing the confusion and paralysis on the ground. “No one had ever contemplated something like this – using commercial airliners as weapons,” he says. “I remember the bewilderment of watching. ‘What another plane? What another plane?’” To recreate Flight 93 itself, Greengrass used a decommissioned Boeing 757, mounted on hydraulic gimbals to simulate the plane’s movement. The interior was an exact replica of a United Airlines plane circa 2001. Even passengers’ clothes were researched, as recalled by nephew of Flight 93 victim Mark Rothenberg. “The actor playing my uncle was wearing the same shirt, colour, make, everything, that my uncle was wearing that day,” Bernstein said. “They would ask such specifics as, ‘Would your loved one have been reading the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, or a comic book, or nothing? Would they have ordered coffee? Would they have gotten something to eat or not? What food would they eat on their plate?’” The passengers and crew, though mostly unnamed in the film, were dressed so they were recognisable to the families. Though Matt Hall, boyfriend of Mark Bingham, suggested the film was playing up to public perceptions. “They had [Mark] wearing a rugby shirt, when he was actually in a business shirt,” he told the Guardian. “It was like they were making a reference to Mark, as opposed to being absolutely accurate, so that the public – who knew only the key facts – would understand who he was. ‘Oh yeah, that's the rugby player.’” More accurate are the delays. Due to heavy airport traffic, Flight 93 waited almost 45 minutes before eventually taking off at 8.42am. Also depicted are real messages sent to the pilots, Captain Jason Dahl and First Officer LeRoy Homer Jr: one message from Homer’s wife, asking if he was safe (by that point people on the ground knew about the World Trade Center attacks – but no one knows if Homer read his wife’s message); and a message from a United dispatcher which read, “Beware any cockpit intrusion… two aircraft hit World Trade Center”. Lewis Alsamari and Jamie Harding playing the hijackers in United 93 CREDIT: Rex The actual hijacking was also delayed. “According to the plotters held at Guantanamo Bay, the attacks were planned to happen in 15 minutes,” says Tom McMillan. “Only one team achieved that [on Flight 11]. The other two did it in 30 minutes. On Flight 93 they took 46 minutes – for reasons that will never clearly be known. Something caused them to delay.” The film explains it as hesitation on the part of pilot Ziad Jarrah. On the surface it looks like pure conjecture, but McMillan thinks it could be close to the truth. “He was the only one of the hijacker pilots that al-Qaeda was worried about because he was wavering that summer,” says McMillan. “He flew back to Germany in July. In my mind, that’s what the movie is trying to get across – that Jared was wavering. To me that’s plausible.” Jarrah was the only hijacker pilot who didn’t get a commercial pilot’s licence – and as seen in the film, struggled to control the plane – and had a smaller team than the other flights: four-man team instead of five. A suspected fifth member had been denied access to the country. Research into Flight 93, plus details from other 9/11 hijackings, suggest that Greengrass’s version of the hijack captures the terrifying reality: one hijacker, strapped with a fake bomb, stabs a passenger sat in front of him; the two other “muscle” hijackers (wearing red headbands and armed with knives, as they were in real life) force the other passengers to the back of the plane and storm the cockpit, stabbing both the pilot and first officer; lastly, Jarrah takes over the controls and a flight attendant is killed. Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham in United 93 CREDIT: Reuters “They did stab one passenger in first class – Mark Rothenberg,” says McMillan. “One of the hijackers, al-Haznawi, was sitting behind him. That also happened on Flight 11. The others on Flight 93 did say someone had been stabbed in first class – and of the first class passengers, Rothenberg was the only one who didn’t make a call.” As the hijackers stormed the cockpit, one of the pilots is believed to have switched on the microphone. As seen in the film, the Cleveland ATC Center picks up a call of “Mayday! Mayday! Get out of here!” The hijacking is believed to have happened at 9.28am, as the plane suddenly plummeted more than 600ft – also depicted in the film. The pilots die instantly in Greengrass’s retelling, but there’s uncertainty about how long they survived. The cockpit voice recorder picked up some moaning. It was possibly Jason Dahl, still alive. Sandy Dahl, his widow, heard the recording long before the transcript went public. She believed he was badly hurt but fought back. “I would like history to be correct,” she said in 2006. "Yes, what the passengers did was very heroic, and this is not to take anything away from them. But Jason and the other crew members were fighting back against the hijackers, too. They weren't just killed and left on the ground in first class.” At 9.45am, Ziad Jarrah made a reference to “bring the pilot back” – suggesting one of the pilots was still alive. Todd Beamer, however, told Lisa Jefferson that two people were lying on the floor of the first class cabin, injured or dead. That’s the version seen in United 93. One of the many unanswered questions is: what was the hijackers’ target? The 9/11 Commission Report stated ither the White House or United States Capitol. The film claims the Capitol – Jarrah places a picture onto the steering yoke. “Looking at 9/11 Commission research, we know that Bin Laden wanted the White House to be a target,” says McMillan. “But Mohamed Atta [pilot of Flight 11] and the other pilots thought the White House wasn’t recognisable from the air. They’re right. There are a lot of white buildings in Washington DC. The plotters in Guantanamo Bay said Capitol Hill was the target. On Tuesday Sept 11, both the House and the Senate were in session that day – all 535 members. The hijackers did a lot of research but there’s no indication they knew that. Imagine the impact if the plane had hit.”
United 93 brilliantly – and heartbreakingly – recreates the calls that passengers and crew made to loved ones, sometimes verbatim: leaving answer machine messages, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, saying goodbyes. One passenger even passed on the combination to her safe. “Those air phones kept a record,” says McMillan. “They had to use their credit cards, so you can find out who made a call – or at least who paid for it – where it went, how long it lasted, and where the person was sitting onboard. We could see how far they were pushed to the back of the plane, who was sitting near to one another, who was talking. You can tell where the clusters would have been.” Also depicted is how they passed around information about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which may have been crucial in encouraging the passengers to revolt. Passengers on the other flights had no clue what they were facing; by the time Flight 93 was hijacked, reports of the World Trade Center attacks had been on television for half an hour. “I always say the people on the three planes were no less brave, they just didn’t know,” says McMillan. The film takes a complete deviation in its portrayal of German passenger Christian Adams, who pleads for appeasement with the terrorists. “I think we shouldn't provoke them, just do what they want,” he says, hoping to be rewarded for cooperation with a safe landing. Guardian critic John Harris suggested that it played up to American cultural prejudices: “There will surely be all kinds of cries about old European surrender monkeys [and] the US's contrasting backbone.” “There’s no evidence that that happened,” says McMillan. “I don’t know where that came from.” The answer seems to be actor Erich Redman, who based that detail on a comment from one of Adams’ colleagues that “he never made any rash decisions and everything he did was always well-considered”. Redman believed that Adams was “not one of those gung-ho Americans wanting to storm the cockpit and smash those people's skulls in.” “I think he would have said, 'Let's not do this, let's be quiet, let's not interfere with [the terrorists], because once we have landed the authorities will take care of it,” said Redman. Adams’ widow didn’t cooperate with the film; it was too painful. In the aftermath, there was some politics around the heroism. The media focused on Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick – the strapping men believed to have done the fighting back – and Alice Hoagland, the mother of Mark Bingham, upset other families during a tense meeting by suggesting that not everyone on board was a hero. Several people walked out. To treat them all as heroes, she later said “does a disservice to their memory and the truth.” In the film, the passengers and remaining crew rally around at the back of the plane, arming themselves with hot water, cutlery, and a food trolley for a battering ram – consistent with investigators’ accounts. One of the passengers, Don Greene, had a small aircraft licence; another, Sonny Garcia, was a former air traffic controller. Perhaps the plan, as Greengrass posits, was to take back and land Flight 93. The recorder picked up the sound of fighting outside the cockpit door, and Jarrah rolled the plane aggressively from left to right, up and down. Greengrass simulated this by having the hydraulics throw the mock-up plane around based on Flight 93’s real altitudes and movements. The pain and fear – and even the blood – was real from filming these scenes. The smoke cloud left by United Flight 93 after it crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., on September 11, 2001, in a photograph taken by local Val McClatchey CREDIT: AP Photo/Val McClatchey Cheyenne Jackson described the filming: “We spent so many hours throwing our trays around and bleeding and screaming and crying and praying, and throwing up and peeing ourselves, and trying to imagine every possibility of what these people were going through. It was an environment where we could go to these deep, dark places. But the saddest thing about it was that finally we could wash off our makeup and come out of those places.” Jamie Hardy, playing hijacker Ahmed al-Nami, was surprised by where the role took him. “We all came out with stuff we’ve never seen in ourselves before,” he said. There remains some debate about whether the passengers breached the cockpit. In the film, they force their way in and the plane crashes under the pressure. The 9/11 Commission report didn’t believe they made it into the cockpit, but were seconds away. Some family members believe they made it in. Tom McMillan also believes it. “I want to believe they got there,” he says. Words captured from a native English-speaking voice – “… in the cockpit, if we don’t we’ll die” – suggest an alternative plan. “The legend is that they crashed the plane to save the people on the ground. That statement to me suggests they had an alternative to dying. Why else would you have said that? The only thing I could think of is that Don Greene was a pilot and Sonny Garcia was air traffic control. I think that’s why that scene is in the movie. It’s plausible speculation.” Greengrass found metaphor within the probable reality of what the passengers and crew of Flight 93 experienced – the first people to experience the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. “It was the post 9/11 world,” said Greengrass. “A desperate sort of struggle for the control of modernity.”