Powerful ghosts aboard United 93

United93 Splash 01At the moment, the basic news story template for the release of the movie United 93 turns on this question: Is the public ready to buy tickets to see a sad movie about 9/11?

In other words, “Is this entertainment?” You can see a perfect example of this template in reporter Scott Martelle’s Los Angeles Times story about the movie and its prospects for success.

However, I think I see another story coming and it is one based on two other questions.

(1) How will the filmmakers handle the faith elements in the words and actions of the citizens who bravely rushed forward to seize control of the airplane (and, thus, save the U.S. Capitol)?

(2) How will the filmmakers handle the faith elements in the words and actions of the Muslims who bravely rushed forward to hijack the airplane as part of their jihad efforts, seeking their own eternal salvation and the defeat of what they believed was a demonic nation bent on the destruction of Islam?

This may be a big, big story. There are people on both sides who are going to be watching every bit of Godtalk in this film and taking notes. There is no way to please all of them, or any of them.

Too much Christianity? Too little Christianity? Did the filmmakers have the courage to let the Christians on the doomed plane say what they actually said?

Too much Islam? Too little Islam? Did the filmmakers have the courage to let the Islamists on the doomed planes say what they actually said? What about the rites and prayers in their briefing books? They prepared mentally, physically and spiritually. Will the details be in the movie?

Another article in the Los Angeles Times offer clues to how hard it will be to handle this material. I am referring to Richard A. Serrano’s update from Alexandria, Va., on the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. Key testimony centered on the waves of telephone calls — 37 in all — made by passangers and flight attendants aboard Flight 93.

The story discusses several of these calls, but avoids religion. What do the flight recorders say about this issue? What about the testimony of the loved ones? I would honestly like to know if these issues came up in the courtroom.

An important witness was Det. Sgt. Ray Guidetti of the New Jersey State Police, a member of an FBI anti-terrorism task force in Newark. He offered detailed summaries of information about the calls. Serrano writes:

Todd Beamer tried to make four calls. The first three didn’t go through. The fourth was to a phone operator. He reported there were three males with knives, and “one wearing a bomb.” He believed the pilot and copilot were dead or injured on the floor in first class.

The phone operator could hear commotion and Beamer shouting, “The plane is going down!” “Are you ready?” someone said in the background.

Then someone said, “Let’s roll” — the oft-quoted signal from a passenger who led the revolt.

Beamer’s story has been told many times and it is hard to leave God out of it. What will happen in the movie?

And what about Moussaoui himself? Does he express his views in purely secular language? It would appear so, judging by Serrano’s story.

After the Pentagon testimony Tuesday, Moussaoui cried out, “Burn all the Pentagon the next time!” After Guidetti had described the calls from Flight 93, Moussaoui yelled, “Let’s roll to victory!”

What kinds of words and actions will United 93 include?

As the A&E network’s cable movie demonstrated, it will be hard to strike a balance that blesses secular viewers, Christian viewers, moderate Muslim viewers and those who speak for the Islamists. The ghosts in this story are everywhere and people will care about what does, and what does not, show up on the big screen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It would be nice –and fair–if for once a movie tried to present something called the Truth. That doesn’t mean every word has to be repeated–most “history” movies aren’t anywhere long enough for that. BUT dialogue can be edited to give the accurate, real, and full flavor of what was actually said. Somehow I think too many marketing considerations will result in the Truth being crashed in a Hollywood cornfield this time around.

  • babushka

    I really don’t see how anyone with a sense of drama can fail to include Todd Beamer getting the cell-phone operator, a stranger, on the line and asking her to say the Lord’s Prayer with him, including reciting at least the the final “deliver us from evil.” Then standing up to help do just that.

    Those Flight 93 guys are my heroes.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I wonder if the filmmakers will go with the popular myth version of Beamer’s last words (“Let’s roll”) or what the 9/11 commission determined he’d said (“Roll it”, referring to the stewardess’s drink cart they were using as a battering ram).

    Actually I don’t wonder at all. I’ll be amazed if they go with the latter.

  • tmatt

    It appears from the testimony and the tapes that someone said Let’s Roll. Was it the telephone operator who said she heard Beamer say it?

    I know the phrase is in coverage of the Alexandria trial.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    It’s Beamer who’s supposed to have said it. He was speaking to his fellow passengers, perhaps with his head turned away from the phone, so it would be easy to mishear.

    Maybe he did say “Let’s roll”; I haven’t heard the recording myself. But the 9/11 commission reported it as “Roll it.”

    According to the Wikipedia entry on Beamer, he said both, but that might just be a case of typical bad Wikipedia editing. (And his widow has applied for a trademark on “Let’s roll”!)

  • http://reelfanatic.blogspot.com Keith Demko

    I think religion will get the right treatment in this, given how much Greengrass has worked with the victims’ families and will follow their wishes