Politics & Policy

9/11: The Movie

A&E's Flight 93.

There’s a moment toward the end of Flight 93–the new A&E film about 9/11 and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania–when the passengers realize they must make a decision about whether they’re going to try to overpower the hijackers. So they do something quintessentially American: They vote.

The entire movie, which premieres tonight at 9 P.M., can be interpreted as a metaphor for the war on terror: The bad guys wield box cutters, invoke the name of Allah, and kill people; the Americans vote, say the Lord’s Prayer, and fight back.

You already know how the story ends. For the ordinary people on board Flight 93, it’s a horrible ending. But their sacrifice prevented a national catastrophe from turning unknowably worse. I’ve wondered whether their bravery saved my own life: On the morning of 9/11, I was in NR’s Washington office, which is about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. What if the terrorists were targeting the big white dome? What if they overshot their target by about two blocks? Well, they didn’t–and they didn’t because a few brave folks stopped them. (On 9/11, Ramesh Ponnuru and I filed this report.)

Tonight’s movie is the first in what appears to be a bumper crop of films with 9/11 themes. Another one, also called Flight 93, is scheduled for a theatrical release in April. ABC has plans to air a six-hour mini-series starring Donnie Wahlberg. Oliver Stone is currently filming a movie with Nicolas Cage about a pair of cops who become trapped beneath the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Reign O’er Me, about a man who lost his family on 9/11, will feature Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. 102 Minutes, a book that describes the rush to escape from the Twin Towers, apparently will form the basis of a movie as well.

The A&E film is perhaps a healthy way to begin because it gets a few big things right. First, it doesn’t shirk from portraying the hijackers as Islamic radicals. At one point, their leader issues an order to one of his henchmen: “Enough! It is Allah’s will. You will fight them.” (The words are spoken in Arabic, and they are subtitled.) The filmmakers don’t overdo this angle, but I’m going to give them points for simply not ignoring it. They are sure to get piles of hate mail from the sorts of people who would like us to forget the nature of our enemies. It will be a sign that they’re doing something right.

Second, the movie doesn’t whitewash the faith of the passengers. Todd Beamer (of “let’s roll” fame) recites the Lord’s Prayer with a Verizon employee who has taken his call. When was the last time you heard the Lord’s Prayer uttered in a brand-new movie that airs on a secular TV channel? More points!

Third, we see actual footage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is virtually impossible to watch the same thing on a news channel because the mainstream media has opted for a blackout of the most potent 9/11 images on the grounds that doing otherwise would be distasteful to the dead and distressing to young viewers. In 2004, Byron York wrote a cover story in National Review about this practice and concluded:

It is far easier to argue that the War on Terror is about oil, or empire, or Halliburton, when you simply don’t show what it is really about: the attacks of September 11. Americans won’t forget that day. But as it recedes in time, they may lose the visceral feeling they experienced as terrorists struck at the centers of American power and killed 3,000 people. Showing that horrifying video would remind people of just how they felt — and of why the War on Terror goes on.

Once again, I give the filmmakers enormous credit for not pulling punches. They might easily have balked, but they didn’t.

So is Flight 93 a good movie? That’s hard to say, in part because the events of that day are so familiar and their significance so undiminished. I once visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, but then again I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. I was supposed to remember it. Watching Flight 93 delivered a similar sensation.

The film, which often feels like a docudrama, is neither great nor awful. There were moments of tension, but it wasn’t thrilling in the way of its fictional brethren, airplane-terror movies such as Air Force One and Executive Decision. There were moments of emotion and drama, and a couple of scenes veered close to the treacly territory of the Lifetime channel. I also thought the movie dragged a bit in the second half.

As soon as the passengers resolved to fight back, however, the movie gained a second wind. When the terrorists weren’t looking, the Americans filled coffee pots with scalding water and armed themselves with unopened cans of pop (those things must hurt if they bean people in the head). One of them grabbed a fire extinguisher. Another carried a seat cushion like a shield. They turned a beverage cart into a battering ram. My wife commented that they were like little boys who dressed up as knights and used their imaginations to turn mundane objects into weapons of war.

And like knights on white horses, they wound up saving the day, or at least a portion of it. They delivered us from even more evil.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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