UNITED 93 (2006) – Film Review (Part 2)

I remember visiting the Filmtracks ScoreBoard (a message board for film score enthusiasts) as the attack on our country took place on September 11th. Going back to the messages we posted during that time, I am reminded of the shock, fear, and anger that engulfed not only those of us in the United States, but those around the world as well. Even in the midst of the confusion and unanswered questions, we seemed to understand something better then than we do now: we are at war. Everyone was saying it—liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, whatever.

At one point in the film, Ben Sliney, head of the FAA’s National Air Traffic Control Center (who plays himself in the movie), says, “We’re at war with someone.” This war is something many in the United States are choosing to ignore—and it is one reason why I am thankful for United 93.

The common phrase used today is, “We are at war with terror,” but that sidesteps the real issue. Andrew C. McCarthy comments on the events of 9/11 (in a speech in 2004), and explains why the term “war on terror” is nothing more than empty rhetoric:

Terrorism is not an enemy. It is a method. It is the most sinister, brutal, inhumane method of our age. But it is nonetheless just that: a method. You cannot, and you do not, make war on a method. War is made on an identified — and identifiable — enemy.

In the here and now, that enemy is militant Islam — a very particular practice and interpretation of a very particular set of religious, political and social principles.

A little later, McCarthy explains that as the terrorists began training on U.S. soil in the late 80’s they

…saw themselves as a committed jihad army in the making.

They were fully convinced that their religion compelled them to brutality. And unlike us, they had no queasiness: They were absolutely clear about who their enemy was. They did not talk in jingos about the “War on Freedom,” or the “War on Liberty.” They talked about the War on America, the War on Israel, and the War on West. They were plainspoken about whom they sought to defeat and why.

People are scrambling to explain away the violent nature of the term “jihad”:

“Sure, jihad means using force,” they say, “but only in defense — only when Muslims are under attack.” Of course, who is to say what is defensive? Who is to say when Muslims are under attack? For the militants, Islam is under attack whenever anyone has the temerity to say: “Islam — especially their brand of Islam — is not for me.” For the militants who will be satisfied with nothing less than the destruction of Israel, Islam is under attack simply because Israelis are living and breathing and going about their lives.

Simply stated, for Abdel Rahman, bin Laden, and those who follow them, jihad means killing the enemies of the militants — which is pretty much anyone who is not a militant. When your forces are outnumbered, and your resources are scarce, it means practicing terrorism.

Even though—or maybe because of the very fact that—the filmmakers of United 93 had no political agenda, the enemy we came face to face with on 9/11 is strikingly clear in the film. The terrorists cannot be explained away as crazy lunatics. They were committed and calculating. They sincerely believed their mission was from God. They were convinced of the rightness of their cause.

There is one sequence in particular that shows the underlying struggle in the September 11th attacks: the Judeo/Christian worldview vs. the Islamic worldview. As we near the film’s climax, the passengers begin formulating a plan to take back the plane. The terrorists can tell something’s going on but they aren’t sure what to do about it. In a series of quick shots, we see passengers tearfully reciting the Lord’s prayer, intercut with the terrorists murmuring to Allah. Both groups are praying, but with two entirely different motivations. The sequence happens fast and could easily be missed, but the clash between the two worldviews is unmistakably potent.

Todd Beamer was one of the passengers who died on United Airlines Flight 93. His father, David Beamer, recently had this to say:

Often we attend movies to escape reality and fantasize a bit. In this case and at this time, it is appropriate to get a dose of reality about this war and the real enemy we face. It is not too soon for this story to be told, seen and heard. But it is too soon for us to become complacent. It is too soon for us to think of this war in only national terms. We need to be mindful that this enemy, who made those holes in our landscape and caused the deaths of some 3,000 of our fellow free people, has a vision to personally kill or convert each and every one of us. This film reminds us that this war is personal....

There are those who would hope to escape the pain of war. Can’t we just live and let live and pretend every thing is OK? Let’s discuss, negotiate, reason together. The film accurately shows an enemy who will stop at nothing in a quest for control. This enemy does not seek our resources, our land or our materials, but rather to alter our very way of life.

The solution to radical Islamic terrorism is not found in an attempt to convert it to moderate Islam (as Andrew C. McCarthy believes). The source of all terrorism—religiously motivated or otherwise—is human depravity. The source of sins is sin. The source of sin is the human heart. The only antidote is death to sin. The only solution is a new heart. And the power for that kind of change comes from only one source: the gospel of Jesus Christ. As God’s plan of salvation unfolds and human hearts are changed, the terror caused by sin will be overcome by the grace of God.

At the same time, I believe the United States has the responsibility to respond to these terrorists in retributive fashion. God calls government leaders to reward good and punish evil. If we are to effectively deal with the issues of 9/11, we must first recognize the underlying causes of 9/11. Cloaking our struggle as being “at war with terror” will not lead to victory. May our nation’s leaders see through the fog and have the courage to pursue the proper course. May we be burdened to pray for our leaders so that they will know what that proper course is. Because none of us knows. Only God does.

If United 93 had attempted to offer some solution to the war we encountered on 9/11, it would have been far from perfect. I am thankful Paul Greengrass had no other intentions than to be faithful to what we know about United Airlines Flight 93. By sticking to the facts and keeping speculation down to a bare minimum, the film tells us many things in a much more powerful way than a piece of propaganda ever could. May United 93 give us a more clear understanding of the events of September 11, 2001, and may it inspire us to respond appropriately—as sinners saved by grace and as a sovereign nation.

Artistic Merit: 9
Personal Marks: 10