On Fearlessness, Courage, and United 93

Watching United 93 is like being punched in the gut. In a good way. The new film, opening Friday, actually delivers a cathartic cinematic trifecta: the punch in the gut is accompanied by a jolt to the brain, and a fullness in the heart. This is an unforgettable film.

As the chilling, soul-wrenching, and unglamorously heroic events play out, the controversy that has surrounded the film -- is it too soon? is it exploitative? -- seems ludicrous. Too soon? It's been nearly five years since the terrorist attacks. Exploitative? What is exploitative is the way the events of 9/11 have consistently been exploited for political purposes. In fact, the film comes across as determinedly unexploitative. The forty ordinary people on the ill-fated flight -- 33 passengers and 7 crew members -- acted in an extraordinary manner. It's offensive to suggest that we are somehow collectively too squeamish to watch what they went through.

While watching the film, so many of the issues of fearlessness that I've been thinking about for my new book came flooding to the fore.

Courage, as my compatriot Pericles wrote, is the knowledge of what is not to be feared. This is the only way to rise above our fears and move forward despite them -- and do the thing we think we cannot do. That's what happened on United flight 93. The passengers were desperately fearful -- and with good reason, as crew members and a fellow passenger were murdered by the hijackers. But once they realized what was happening, and learned from calls to loved ones that the other planes had been crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they rose above those fears and acted defiantly.

In discussing the actions of the passengers, the film's director Paul Greengrass has said: "They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world." And, as we see in the film, they absorbed the shift instantly and acted accordingly. The movie depicts their heroic stand in the most prosaic manner. Their shift from helpless to heroic is treated with remarkable restraint. Todd Beamer isn't turned into Tom Cruise. Mark Bingham doesn't become Vin Diesel. In fact, it's just the opposite. The crew and passengers are not transformed into special characters, just Everymen forced to face the ultimate fear -- the fear of dying -- and rising above it. In Greenglass' hands the mythic Flight 93 catchphrase -- "Let's roll!" -- becomes a throwaway line as the anxious passengers gather their resolve.

Their defiance is exactly what Pericles was talking about.

Of course, courage takes on many forms and, in some ways, the most courageous acts of all began only after United 93 went down in that Shanksville, Pennsylvania field.

The movie ends with that horrifying outcome (made no less horrific by our awareness that it's coming). But even as the credits rolled, I found my thoughts shifting to the suffering endured by those the doomed passengers left behind -- and of the kind of courage it took to eventually move beyond that grief.

It was a courage that morphed into a determination every bit as powerful as that shown by the passengers on the plane -- a determination to force our leaders to examine and confront the failures that had allowed the terrorist attacks to occur.

Don't forget: if it weren't for the tenacity of the 9/11 families, there never would have been a 9/11 Commission. The White House, after all, did everything in its power to avoid it. But the families fought on, lobbying Congress and using the media to keep the public pressure on. Finally, following a candlelight vigil outside the White House, the Bush administration relented and dropped its opposition to the creation of the 9/11 Commission -- more than a year after the attacks.

Come to think of it, the inside story of that battle would make for a terrific -- and fitting -- sequel.