Movie vs. Reality: United 93

By Felix Quinonez Jr.

October 9, 2012

We really love this actor.

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We’ve all heard movies described as “based on a true story” but what does that actually mean? I’m always surprised by the fact that some people seem to equate this to watching a documentary. Sure, some movies stick close to the source material but even the most faithful adaptations make changes to the story. And of course there are some movies that alter so much that any similarities to the actual events seem to be accidental.

In each entry of this column I’m going to be looking at a different movie “based on a true story” or whatever phrasing is attached to it and compare it to the actual story. Hopefully I’ll be able to separate fact from Hollywood. But I’m also going to be talking about what those changes mean and why they were made. Do the changes have some artistic merit or are they just attempts to make the story fit into a neat Hollywood package?

There are some events in life that are so profound that their impacts never really go away. These moments divide life into before and after categories. One of the most defining tragedies of our lifetimes was the attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks not only took the lives of almost 3,000 people and caused millions of dollars worth of damage, but also changed us as a nation.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of these attacks on the United States. They influenced and altered almost all assets of our lives and over a decade later we are still living in its shadow. It was a terrible realization of how vulnerable we are as a country. These attacks blanketed the nation in shock, fear, grief, and solidarity. But it also gave way to anger, paranoia, and a startling and frightening level of xenophobia masked as national pride.


A dark cloud hung over the nation that forced us to reexamine what mattered. Suddenly, everything we looked at was cast in a different light. Were we allowed to laugh and seek entertainment at a time of such tragedy? Was every flight a possible death sentence? Were there more attacks being planned? Were there possible terrorists living among us? Unfortunately, many people found themselves asking these questions and as grief gave way to anger, they sought someone to blame. Suddenly anyone who “looked like” a terrorist was a potential outlet for their frustrations.

The attacks affected everything, including the world of entertainment. Box office receipts showed that people weren’t ready to go to the movies yet. Bill Maher actually found himself without a job for making controversial statements about 9/11. It would be a long while before people were ready to see these events dramatized on the big screen.

United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, was the first Hollywood production to be directly based on the tragedy. It recounts the harrowing events - with as much accuracy as possible - of the United 93 flight. The movie is shot in real time from the flight’s takeoff. When the movie was released on April of 2006 - less than five years after the attacks - it garnered near universal acclaim. Even though it was generally accepted that the movie was both respectful to the memory of those who died and a very good movie, it did not exactly set the box office on fire. It grossed just over $31 million domestically. For many people - like me - it was just too soon. The fact that it was shot in real time and in a documentary style made it that much harder to watch. I actually saw it for the first time before writing this column and it was still gut wrenching.

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