After all, Sliney was national operations manager at the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Va. during the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings and terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C; he wasn’t an actor.
“They backed me into it,” groaned the Irish-American, Medford, Mass., native, recalling how he was initially invited to participate in the project as an advisor, then hired as an actor one night after dinner with the filmmakers.
Asked at that meal who he thought should play him in the movie, Sliney says he told Greengrass, his spouse and some other people involved with the film, “‘Well, my wife, Irene, wants Clooney, but I think Rosemary’s dead.’
“And, of course, none of them laughed because they didn’t have a clue who the hell Rosemary Clooney was,” he continued. “I thought it was a funny line. … She was famous here in the States, of course. (Greengrass) asked me, ‘Do you think you could play yourself?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never (acted) before, but I’ve been Ben Sliney for 60-odd years, I guess I could go another two hours.’ So, that’s how that all came about.”
The FAA center in Herndon exercises command authority over the 20 regional air traffic control facilities in the United States. On the morning of Sept. 11, his first day on the job as national operations manager, Sliney gave the order to clear the skies, landing approximately 4,500 commercial and general aviation aircraft within hours before any additional planes could be hijacked.
“United 93” is about the brave people on-board the only plane of the four taken over by terrorists that day not to hit its intended target. The passengers and crew are credited with saving lives on the ground by fighting the terrorists for control of the plane. Everyone on United Flight 93 died when the plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Numerous scenes in the film show Sliney and air traffic controllers in various locations doing their jobs while trying to absorb the unimaginable events that were unfolding.
“My demeanor on that day was to be very calm and to provide a base for people who were in that room and, naturally, concerned for their families’ safety and for their own safety,” Sliney said, confiding Greengrass asked him to raise his voice and swear more in the movie than he really did that day. “I’m not a filmmaker, but I presume he wanted to exaggerate the action. … On that day, I strove not to be animated for a good reason. I was in charge and the people look to you when you’re in that position to provide some stability in a very confusing environment.”
So, what was it like reliving that horrific day over and over in front of a camera?
“The part that bothered me was seeing (the plane) hit the World Trade Center,” Sliney said. “I saw that in real life and it still sends the same chill down my spine as it did on that day. I didn’t like looking at it in the set. I’ll never forget it. I can’t even look at a plane flying overhead anymore without having some suspicion in my mind. I never will again.”