Midway through last April’s press screening of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, I made a mental note to watch the end credits for the name of the actor playing the role of Ben Sliney, the National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Herndon, Virginia. On September 11, 2001, it was Sliney who issued a nationwide grounding of all air traffic in the moments following the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the second tower of the World Trade Center. Later, when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, he ordered all inbound flights to land immediately, regardless of their final destinations.
Both were unprecedented actions, and in a movie devoid of movie stars or outsize heroes, it’s the character of Sliney who provides the strongest point of connection for the audience — his initial bewilderment (“A hijacking? When was the last time we had one of those?”), escalating frustration and ultimate sense of powerlessness mirroring our own as we watch the doomed passengers and crew onboard the movie’s titular flight hurtle toward their deaths. So, who was this graying character actor inhabiting the role with such natural authority, making split-second decisions in the heat of the moment without losing his cool, the very embodiment of the professionalism to which Greengrass’ film is, in part, a kind of tribute? As it happens, it was none other than Ben Sliney himself.
It’s an unseasonably warm January afternoon when I meet Sliney over a lunch of fresh deli sandwiches at the Long Island home he shares with his wife, Irene. Sliney retired in 2006, and the cold cuts are one of the things that brought him back to New York, where the Boston native began his career in air-traffic control in the 1970s and later practiced law for two decades before returning to the FAA in 2000. “It was too rural,” he says of Virginia in his boisterous, straight-talking way. “There are no delis. There are no butchers. There are no bakers. You buy everything in a supermarket, which was really alien to me. We had a beautiful apartment, but when you’d say hello to people in the apartment complex, they’d put their heads down. What the hell is up with that? I couldn’t take it. I don’t want to go south of the Hudson again if I don’t have to.”
Sliney never planned on acting in United 93, having traveled to the film’s London set to serve as a technical adviser. But when Greengrass asked him if he’d play a small role as one of the movie’s New York–based air-traffic controllers, he agreed, and ended up showing an affinity for his director’s improvisational methods. “They gave me a cell phone that belonged to one of the crew people, and [associate producer] Mike Bronner would call me during the scene to do what Paul calls ‘driving the action,’ ” Sliney remembers. “He’d say, ‘We’ve just gotten word there’s another hijacking,’ and things like that. About the third or fourth time they shot the scene, the phone rang at the wrong time, but I answered it, ‘New York Center.’ It was a lady looking for the person who owned the phone, and I said, ‘Look, I’m in the middle of a hijacking right now, I’ll have to call you back,’ and I hung up.”
Meanwhile, for the professional actor cast to play Sliney — the 30-year-old, 6-foot-4, blond-haired and blue-eyed Tim Carr who, the 61-year-old Sliney jokes, “looked just like me” — things weren’t going as smoothly. “He had a hard time, I guess, adjusting to that style,” Sliney says. “There was no script, so you were just reacting to different stimuli. Of course, the stimuli were all familiar to me. I had something to say no matter what they threw at me.” After the production had shot for two full days with Carr, Sliney awoke the next morning to find a note under his door. “It said, ‘Can you please bring your suit and your shoes to the set?’ It was from Bronner, and at the bottom he wrote, ‘This is not ?a test, this is not a drill,’ which is a line from the Air Force scenes in the picture. I knew then that they wanted me to play myself.”
Sliney is hardly the first nonactor to step into his own shoes for a movie role: The Cambodian refugee Dr. Haing S. Ngor won an Academy Award for playing himself in 1984’s The Killing Fields,while ousted American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson has just been nominated for playing relatively close to the bone in Dreamgirls. And lest you think that playing oneself is a cinch, I suggest you compare Muhammad Ali’s performance in the 1977 biopic The Greatest to Will Smith’s in Ali and tell me who delivers the more compelling impersonation. The example Sliney most immediately calls to mind, however, is that of another former attorney, Fred Dalton Thompson, whose self-portrait in the fact-based 1985 film Marie launched him on a prolific career as a supporting player (The Hunt for Red October, In the Line of Fire, Die Hard 2), interrupted only by Thompson’s 1994–2003 stint in the U.S. Senate.
My point is that Sliney is very, very good, and that he possesses the sort of innate love of performing that cannot be faked. “I liken it to trying a case in a courtroom,” he tells me. “You don’t see or hear anybody behind you. Similarly, with the camera, I didn’t really notice it at all. In fact, on a couple of takes, I whipped around and almost ran into the camera guy. When you try a case, you work out those monologues in your head 100 times before you get there, so no matter what the witness says, you’re ready with a response. You get used to focusing on what you’re required to focus on.”
Of the finished film, Sliney acknowledges that it’s a grueling experience, but also strangely uplifting. “It typifies the finest aspects of the human spirit, which is to take control of your own destiny and to overcome these evildoers or however you want to characterize these people in the cockpit,” he says. And as to the obvious question: Having done it once, has Sliney been bitten by the acting bug? “I’d love to try it again. I didn’t think I did, but now I think it’s a lot of fun. You know what the truly remarkable thing is — second to flying first class on Universal’s ticket? You see the whole scene being shot that you’re in, and you see other scenes being shot. But then to see the final project, how they put it all together — that to me was fascinating. That’s the art.”