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Riveting remembrance

'United 93' stirs emotions and serves heroes well

'United 93' stirs emotions and serves heroes well

May 09, 2006|by SARAH JOHNSTON

I saw "United 93" the weekend it opened. As the theater lights dimmed, a nervous jitter ran through the crowd. The audience braced for the painful memories that "United 93" would unearth, memories that many Americans have tried to forget since Sept. 11.

Scanning the apprehensive faces, I wondered what the movie would mean to each moviegoer. I knew what it would mean to me.

I have lived in Hagerstown for a year and a half. My family moved here from New Jersey, but, having lived 18 miles outside of Manhattan, I associate myself with New York City more than anywhere else. On a clear day, such as that day, one could see the World Trade Center from my former hometown. In retrospect, I think about how many of my classmates, on their way to school that morning, had seen the Twin Towers for what would be the last time. These buildings, seen so often, had become a mere backdrop in our landscape.

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"United 93," a docudrama filmed in real time, is a realistic account of the events that took place on one of four airplanes hijacked by Muslim extremists on Sept. 11. Director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") re-created the horror of that morning with astounding acuity.

I saw my own feelings reflected in the anguished faces of the actors. At times, I did not feel as if I was watching a movie, but I felt more like I was reliving an infamous day in my young life. Our grandparents remember Pearl Harbor. Our parents remember President John Kennedy's assassination. My generation always will remember Sept. 11. One who has witnessed tragedy on American soil remembers it with unnerving clarity.

The school day had barely begun when our teacher slowly got up from his computer, shaking and queasy. His face contorted by a mix of emotions, he said, to no one in particular, "The World Trade Center has been hit."

The disbelief in his voice was reiterated by our own disbelieving voices, as we bombarded the teacher with a barrage of questions: "Hit? Hit by what? A plane? Why was it flying so low? Hijackers? There must be a mistake."

But there had not been a mistake.

My hometown is a bedroom community for New York City. Many of my classmates had loved ones who commuted into the city.

Some worked in World Trade Center offices. Huddled in the cafeteria with my classmates, I watched as, one by one, panicky parents picked up their children.

As I surveyed my anxious classmates, I was struck by a heart-wrenching realization: I was going home to both of my parents, but some of my classmates were not. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors and family friends who had left for New York City early that morning would never be coming home to New Jersey and their loved ones.

I thought of a girl in my foreign language class. Her father worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment company between the 101st and 105th floors of one of the Twin Towers. I would later learn that he had perished in the attack. Her loss was one of many in my town. On Sept. 11, we grieved as a nation, but, depending on where we lived and who we knew, we also grieved as individuals.

"United 93" flawlessly interwove actual news footage from the Sept. 11 attacks into the script. The images on the big screen intertwined with what I remember of the images on the small screen in the days following the attacks: the Twin Towers engulfed in flames; a man who opted to jump to his death rather than be burnt alive; a priest killed by falling rubble in the midst of a prayer; women kicking off their heels in an attempt to outrun the cloud of smoke threatening to envelop them; the World Trade Center collapsing into a heap of charred remains; hysterical bystanders. These are images that haunt me.

However, in "United 93," the most painful scenes are not of news footage, but of the passengers and crew phoning their loved ones to say a final farewell.

"United 93" re-creates the story of ordinary citizens performing extraordinary acts of patriotism. Thousands of feet in the air, the passengers and crew of United 93 demonstrated incredible valor. We will never know exactly what happened during that flight, but, from dozens of phone calls and a 30-minute cockpit voice recording, it is clear that the 44 Americans aboard died trying to prevent more tragedy. To me, "United 93" holds much more significance than the name of the doomed flight. I see the word "United" not as the name of an airline, but as the action one group took to thwart terrorists' plans of destruction.

As the movie ended, the theater was shrouded in silence. Moviegoers had known before they sat down what the outcome of the story would be, yet, even as the plane spiraled downward, nose-diving into a Pennsylvania field, I hoped for a different ending.

Audience members remained paralyzed in their seats, trying to make sense of emotions within them.

If you decide to see "United 93," I recommend going with someone with whom you can grieve. We have not shed our last tear over the tragedy of that September day.

"United 93" flawlessly interwove actual news footage from the Sept. 11 attacks into the script. The images on the big screen intertwined with what I remember of the images on the small screen in the days following the attacks: the Twin Towers engulfed in flames; a man who opted to jump to his death rather than be burnt alive; a priest killed by falling rubble in the midst of a prayer; women kicking off their heels in an attempt to outrun the cloud of smoke threatening to envelop them; the World Trade Center collapsing into a heap of charred remains; hysterical bystanders. These are images that haunt me.




Sarah Johnston, 16, is a junior at North Hagerstown High School. On Sept. 11, she lived in a New Jersey town only 18 miles away from the World Trade Center.

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