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United 93: America's First Victory in the War on Terror

By Mark Davis

While most moviegoers seek a certain escapist experience, the audience for the newly opened United 93 willfully immerses itself in a story precisely for its gut-wrenching real-life impact.

One can reasonably wonder: Why would people plunk down hard-earned cash for this kind of catharsis?

That depends on the individual, but I had two main reasons.

First, 9/11 is sacred subject matter that strikes all of us in personal ways. I have my standards for how I want this subject matter treated in popular culture.

Second, I've spent a lot of time scolding the portion of America that seems to have grown cavalier about the war footing most of America gladly adopted when the terrorists struck; I wanted to gauge the film's ability to transport me, and perhaps others, back to that dark day for some clarity we have clearly lost.

British writer-director Paul Greengrass sought two things that prove his reverence for the material: He wanted a level of detail that would honor the extremely sensitive subject matter of the fatal flight and the unanimous consent of the victims' families.

He has achieved both. I do not know whether he will earn Oscars or a pile of money, but he surely has earned our gratitude. He already has been bathed in the praise of the families of those who died aboard the only hijacked plane that did not reach its destination.

One of the things they - and we - should be grateful for is his decision to offer this story on its own heartbreaking and yet inspiring terms.

There is no preening Hollywood star to be found in the cockpit or in any passenger seat. There is no hokey back story taking us to the night before as some passenger feeds his dog or jogs in Central Park. The brilliance of United 93 is that we as viewers don't know any more about these passengers than if we had been on the plane with them.

And that's exactly where Mr. Greengrass puts us, from the routine choreography of boarding the 757 to the dread of seeing the flight take off from Newark even as American Airlines Flight 11 was screaming toward the north tower of the World Trade Center.

We are in the cabin when four hijackers - portrayed not as the cartoonish villains Hollywood usually fashions, but as nervous yet committed warriors for terror - storm the cockpit, killing the pilot and co-pilot.

Passengers with cellphones begin to contact friends and family, who inform them of the terrible events unfolding elsewhere. They are not merely on a hijacked plane, they learn, but a plane that will become a deadly missile if they do not act.

So they do.

And just as the evil of the terrorists does not need overbearing amplification by an overeager filmmaker, nor does the compelling heroism of the half-dozen or so passengers who say through their actions: Not this plane. Not today.

They are not suave, swashbuckling heroes with cool eyes and steel jaws. They are rumpled, terrified and barely organized, running on raw adrenaline as they storm the cockpit.

And as heartbreaking and infuriating as their plight becomes, I confess to some soul-cleansing satisfaction as they exacted some consequences on the people who did this to them.

This is not a reaction born of shallow revenge. United 93 is the story of our first victory in the war on terror. That term is not used anywhere in the film. It does not need to be.

It is not a documentary. Much of the action on the plane is an educated guess based on what we know from the cellphone calls and cockpit voice tapes. As the passengers use - and share - those phones so that they might all leave a final word for a loved one - I was as moved as I have ever been by any moment in any film.

From the scenes involving air traffic control to military nerve centers, some of the cast members play themselves. If you're wondering why they would want to relive that experience, think again - they have probably relived it a thousand times. What a profoundly satisfying thing it must have been to participate in a work that so nobly chronicles that momentous day.

To see this movie is to enjoy a different kind of satisfaction: It is to participate in its tribute to the Americans who were the first 9/11 victims to do something about it.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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