The film opened in North America on April 28, 2006, to critical acclaim. Ten percent of the gross income from the three-day opening weekend was promised toward a donation to create a memorial for the Flight 93 victims. The total gross intake of United 93 was $31.4 million in the United States, and $76.3 million worldwide. The film also received two Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Greengrass.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, passengers board United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco, at Newark Liberty International Airport, including Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Richard Guadagno, Louis J. Nacke, II, William Joseph Cashman and Patrick Joseph Driscoll. Four al-Qaeda terrorists (Ziad Jarrah, Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Nami, and Ahmed al-Haznawi) also board the flight.
Meanwhile, newly promoted FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney is in a meeting when it is reported that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles has been hijacked after Mohamed Atta is overheard on the radio saying, "We have some planes". Minutes later the aircraft crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Much to Sliney and his staff's horror, they learn that a second flight United Airlines Flight 175 also from Boston to Los Angeles, has been hijacked and after New York air traffic controllers attempt to contact the aircraft, it is seen live on CNN plowing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center as reported that day. Sliney and his staff realize they are dealing with several hijackings and order the military to be on the lookout for American Airlines Flight 77, which is reported missing and presumed to have also been hijacked.
On United 93, Jarrah appears hesitant to initiate the hijacking plan; he perhaps seems to be having second thoughts about going through with it. Impatient, the other three hijackers prepare for invasion themselves. al-Haznawi assembles a fake bomb out of clay and plastic during breakfast, then al-Ghamdi makes the first move and grabs hold of flight attendant Debbie Welsh at knifepoint. After a passenger is fatally stabbed and the "bomb" is revealed causing mass panic among passengers, al-Nami and al-Haznawi force the first-class passengers to the back of the plane. Meanwhile, Jarrah and al-Ghamdi threaten Welsh and wrestle their way into the cockpit. The pilots send out a mayday call but are killed and dragged from the cockpit. Welsh herself is killed. Jarrah turns the plane, intending to crash the plane into the United States Capitol.
Sliney, still debating on what to do about the unfolding disaster, is in shock when American 77 crashes into The Pentagon and comes to a decision that all aircraft be grounded and planes are not to enter or leave US airspace until further notice.
Aboard United 93, the passengers become aware of the dead bodies, and learn from family members via airphone of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; they decide to take action organizing a revolt against the hijackers. Their plan is empowered with the knowledge that passenger Don Greene has experience in flying.
After passengers arm themselves, pray, and make final phone calls to loved ones, Todd Beamer says, "Let's Roll!" The group begin their counterattack, rushing down the aisle and overpowering Ahmed al-Haznawi; Mark Bingham crushes Ahmed al-Haznawi's skull with a fire extinguisher, killing him. Seeing this, al-Nami alerts Jarrah and al-Ghamdi in the cockpit of the ongoing assault. Jarrah shakes the plane violently to throw the passengers off balance; nonetheless they continue their assault, overpowering Ahmed al-Nami who is killed by Glick snapping his neck. Seeing the passengers getting nearer, al-Ghamdi and Jarrah debate whether to take the flight down, knowing they'll never reach their intended target. The passengers then breach the cockpit with the food cart, and al-Ghamdi orders Jarrah to crash the plane. Nonetheless, the passengers finally gain entrance into the cockpit, and battle both hijackers over the controls. As the passengers and hijackers struggle for control of the yoke, the plane plummets into a nosedive and goes upside down as the screen cuts to black. Title cards reveal the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
Additionally, several people portray themselves in the film, including Thomas Roberts, Ben Sliney, Tobin Miller, Rich Sullivan, Tony Smith, James Fox, Shawna Fox, Jeremy Powell, Curt Applegate, Greg Callahan, and Rick Tepper.
The film was the first Hollywood feature to draw its narrative directly from the September 11 attacks of 2001. Passengers were portrayed in the film mostly by professional, but relatively unknown, actors. (Tom Burnett, for instance, is played by Christian Clemenson, who has since appeared on Boston Legal and CSI: Miami). The roles of one of the flight attendants, the two pilots, and many other airline personnel were filled by actual airline employees. Some participants in the real-life events play themselves, notably FAA operations manager Ben Sliney.
The dialogue, which was mostly improvised during rehearsals Greengrass held with the cast, was based on face-to-face interviews between actors and relatives of those they portray. Almost none of the passengers in the film are referred to by their names. Their identities remain anonymous, emphasizing the group effort over any individual heroics (and portraying the fact that strangers on an airplane would not know each other's names). Much of the dialogue uses technical authenticity rather than theatrical embellishments, such as talk about whether a plane has "Squawked 7500."
During production, the actors playing the flight's crew and passengers were lodged in separate hotels from the actors portraying the hijackers, and even ate their meals separately, ostensibly to create an air of antagonism in the film between the two groups.
Filming took place from October until December 2005, on a 20-year-old reclaimed Boeing 757 formerly operated by MyTravel Airways, at Pinewood Studios near London. The cockpit was built by Flightdeck solutions. The location was chosen both for its financial incentives and to shield actors from unwanted public scrutiny they might have received in the United States. Action was filmed with handheld cameras, chosen for their versatility on the close-quarters sets and to create a sense of immediacy. Exterior airport sequences were shot on location at Newark Liberty International Airport, while interiors were shot back in England at London Stansted Airport. A few scenes were also shot in Washington, D.C. and Boston. Additionally, an opening sequence set in Afghanistan was shot in Morocco, but it was cut from the film before release.
The title was changed from Flight 93 to United 93 in March 2006, to differentiate it from the A&E TV movie Flight 93. Shortly thereafter, the film was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence." Universal Pictures' appeal of this rating was rejected. The film was released in the United States cinemas on April 28, 2006, and opened second in the weekend box office behind RV, but it netted a slightly higher per-screen average.
Initial screenings ended with the closing credits line "America's War on Terror had begun". This was replaced in the release version with "Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001".
After trailers for the film began circulating in cinemas, there were calls for Universal Studios to pull them, due to the upset and surprise caused to some audience members. Universal did not heed that call, although one theatre in Manhattan pulled the trailer after audience complaints.
The Iraqi-born, London-based actor Lewis Alsamari, who plays hijacker Saeed al-Ghamdi, was reportedly denied a visa by United States immigration authorities when he applied to visit New York City to attend the premiere, despite having already been granted asylum in the United Kingdom since the 1990s. The reason reported to have been given was that he had once been a conscripted member of the Iraqi Army — although this was also the grounds for his refugee status after his desertion in 1993. Other sources say that he applied late for his visa and that it was not denied.
The real United Airlines Flight 93 was a Boeing 757-222 flight that regularly flew from Newark International Airport (now known as Newark Liberty International Airport) in Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California. On September 11, 2001, the aircraft on that flight was one of the four planes hijacked as part of the September 11 terrorist attacks, possibly intended to crash into and destroy the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. It was the only plane of all four hijacked that did not reach its intended target; instead, it crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, near Shanksville, about 150 miles (ca 240 km) northwest of Washington.
The cockpit voice recorder tape from United Flight 93 has never been made public; however the transcript was made public after the film was completed, shedding more light on what actually happened in the final 30 minutes before the plane crashed. Some parts may contradict the filmmaker's choices in terms of some dialogue and specific aspects of the event. For example, the pilots, Jason Dahl and LeRoy Homer Jr., are shown in the film to be killed by the terrorists immediately as they are hijacking the plane. Some statements made by the terrorists in the cockpit voice recorder transcript, as well as moans heard in the background inside the cockpit, raised doubts that both pilots were dead before the plane crashed; however, other documentary evidence from the 9/11 Commission Report indicates that at least one passenger reported in a cell phone call seeing two bodies, possibly the pilots, lying dead on the floor outside the cockpit after the hijacking.
Marion R. Britton is seen handing her mobile to fellow passenger Honor Elizabeth Waino so she can call her mother. It was actually Lauren Grandcolas that handed Honor Elizabeth Waino her phone.
There is some controversy between some of the family members of the passengers and the investigative officials as to whether the passengers managed to breach the cockpit before the plane crashed. The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that "the hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them". However, many of the passengers' family members, having heard the audio recordings, believe that the passengers did breach the cockpit and struggled with the hijackers for control of the yoke (which the movie depicts).
The film has been criticized for its portrayal of German passenger Christian Adams, who is the only passenger portrayed as counseling appeasement, despite the absence of any evidence that he did so. It was also reported that Adams' widow did not cooperate with the filmmakers because it was too emotionally painful. Erich Redman, who portrayed Adams in the film, has stated he did not intend to portray Adams as cowardly but as a man who "never made rash decisions and everything he did was always well-considered."
United 93 was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006. James Berardinelli, Roger Ebert, Michael Medved, and Peter Travers all awarded it four stars on their rating scales, with Ebert calling the film "masterful and heartbreaking" and saying that it "does honor to the memory of the victims." Travers termed it "one of the most moving films of the year", in Rolling Stone. The film holds a 91% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 203 reviews, with the consensus: "Potent and sobering, United 93 treats the subject matter with respect, never resorting to Hollywood aggrandizement."
The film also has a score of 90 on Metacritic, where the film appears on 39 critics' top 10 lists, more than any other 2006 film on the site, (although the 2006 film with the highest average score on the site is the re-released 1969 film Army of Shadows). The film was ranked #1 on 47 lists (the most of any 2006 film).
At the website Movie City News, which ranks 250 critics' lists and awards point values for list-placement, United 93 ranks as the #1 film of 2006 with a score of 917.5 points.
The film has been cited as a favorite by filmmaker John Waters, who presented it as his annual selection within the 2010 Maryland Film Festival.
Only two films (The Departed and The Queen) appeared on more top 10 lists of the best films of 2006 than United 93, and no film received more #1 mentions:
Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal and Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer named it among the top ten best films of 2006.
United 93 received numerous awards and nominations from film critics and guilds. Ultimately, the film received two Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, at the 79th Academy Awards, and six BAFTA Award nominations, including Best British Film, at the 60th British Academy Film Awards, winning two for Best Director and Best Film Editing.
United 93 was released to DVD on September 5, 2006, in both widescreen and fullscreen. Also released was a 2-disc Special Limited Edition in widescreen. A Blu-ray Disc version was released on September 6, 2011. A second Blu-ray release from Universal Studios for the film was released on June 5, 2012, as a part of Universal's Universal 100th Anniversary releases. This version included the same Blu-ray Disc (same transfer and same bonus features) found in the first 2011 release in addition to a DVD and digital copy included in the pack with a brand-new sleeve that was not available with the previous release. Both Blu-ray Disc sets for the film are region free.