Television Review Flight That Fought

Television Review: The Flight that Fought Back

The Discovery Channel is airing a documentary on United Airlines flight 93, which was hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11. It will be on 9 pm on Sunday, September 11, and then repeated at 11 pm and at 1 am. I watched it this morning and can recommend it.

The documentary combines fictional recreations of scenes using actors with interviews with family members, friends and contacts that set the scenes and give some insight into why writer-director Bruce Goodison, co-writer & co-producer Phillip Marlow and producer and commentator writer/director Phil Craig chose to write the dramatic scenes the way he did.

Controversy rages among historians about using the techniques of fiction within a historical narrative. Edmund Morris was slammed for casting his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan as a historical novel. Simon Shama’s Dead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations also mixed historical research with fictional techniques, to not always breathless reviews by other historians.

The writers generally bring off the amalgam of fact and “fiction” (not in the sense that it is not true but in the sense that we cannot know if it actually happened exactly that way in all details, and it is anyway being enacted by actors). I would have been happier if the dramatized scenes had been labeled, though I admit it would have been tedious.

The documentary generally tells the story of what happened in a straightforward chronological way, beginnging with the hijackings. The accident that Flight 93 was delayed on the tarmac for 40 minutes contributed to the failure of this al-Qaeda mission against the U.S., since the delay allowed the passengers to figure out that their hijackers were on a suicide mission, thus giving them every incentive to mount a revolt. The documentary is extremely valuable for the auditory primary sources it uses– recordings of 911 calls by the hijacked passengers, of calls to the answering machines of relatives, of announcements by the hijackers that went out over the air, of conversations among the air traffic controllers. Craig’s team was also able to do intensive interviewing with family members of the passengers, who recounted the substance of telephone conversations with them once the plane had been hijacked. Some family members report the substance of the cockpit flight recording, which has still not been released.

The unfolding tale of the heroism and competence of the passengers and flight attendants is impossible to watch without some tears in one’s eyes. These were just ordinary Americans, but they were clearly admirable persons facing a horrifying and mystifying reality. In some ways they were the first responders to al-Qaeda’s strike on America, a point some of the relatives make.

Given the combat tasks that ultimately faced the passengers, it would have been possible for Craig, Goodison and Marlow to concentrate on a few of the more formidable men, who included a former quarterback, a judo champion and someone with law enforcement training, to the exclusion of many others. They give full portraits of several of the women and credits the flight attendants with coming up with the idea of boiling water to throw on the al-Qaeda agents.

The film gives a full chronology, splicing in interviews at key junctures, and sets flight 93 in the context of the other hijackings that day. It does not speculate as to the target sought by Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah, though various later captured al-Qaeda leaders identified it as the White House or the Capitol building. The cumulative evidence they present makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the passengers genuinely did mount a revolt and force a crash about 15 minutes from Washington, DC, over Pennsylvania.

The documentary depicts the hijackers as shouting in Arabic “Inzilha, Inzilha!” (Or possibly “Nazzilha, nazzilha”–in colloquial Arabic vowels are often transposed.)–i.e. “bring it down”, as the passengers rammed the cockpit. Unfortunately, Craig and the writers do not tell us if the word “Inzilha!” is their own translation of the 9/11 Commission’s report on the cockpit recorder results (it says they shouted “put it down!” which is not exactly the same thing) This question points to one severe drawback of the technique of mixing fiction with fact. We viewers do not necessarily know which is which. I’d have loved to use the documentary as historical evidence, but am nervous about a lot of it.

Craig rightly dismisses the rumors that the plane may have been shot down. Eyewitnesses saw the plane flying upside down toward the earth at a high speed just before it crashed.

The documentary is partially a plea by the family members for recognition of the role of the passengers as troops in the front lines of the war on terror. It includes a plea for the public to help fund a memorial at the site of the plane crash. I have to say that I am mystified as to why this should be necessary. Does not Congress wish to honor the people who may well have preserved the Capitol from destruction? Why is there not already a government-backed memorial? It is bizarre.

Interested viewers may compare the film to the wikipedia treatment of these events. This article notes that the 9/11 Commission concluded that the passengers never managed to break down the door and get into the cockpit, something the film disputes. Apparently the relatives who heard the cockpit recording heard more evidence of the break-in than did the members of the commission.

The documentary completely avoids politics. This gap seems to me unfortunate. We are given no more than sketchy details about Lebanese hijacker Ziad Jarrah. He is the most problematic and ambiguous of the hijackers, and many questions have been raised about him. He doesn’t seem to have been much of a Muslim most of the time. He had a live-in Turkish girlfriend and he drank beer with friends at the Florida flight school he attended. Did al-Qaeda just mean to him a vague Arab Muslim nationalism? Had he been traumatized as an 8 year old child by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982? He and the other hijackers are depicted as cyphers. Understanding a criminal or terrorist and justifying him are not the same thing, and Craig, Goodison and Marlow make not the slightest attempt at understanding. Even just a more extended treatment [link removed in preparation for print publication] of the “doomsday document” that guided the terrorists’ preparation for their slaughter of innocents, to which the document very briefly refers, would have been some context.

They choose to depict the hijackers as wide-eyed and terrified at their last moments, and as having been grabbed from behind by enraged passengers. I’m not sure either conclusion is supported by the cockpit flight recorder. Jarrah was all along on a suicide mission. Why should he have been terrified to realize that he would have to crash early, as opposed to disappointed? Accounts of suicide bombers often reveal them as unusually and creepily calm in their last minutes.

There are only so many persons that a documentary can introduce to the audience at once. But I regret that we were not told more about Toshiya Kuge, a Japanese passenger. The September 11 attacks killed a lot of persons other than Americans, including Muslims, and there is some benefit to considering them as global rather than only American events.

What the family members think about the Bush administration’s subsequent “war on terror” and its failure to capture the top ringleaders is not revealed to us by this film. The technique of focusing intensely on the personal has great yields for the purposes of art and emotion. But the absence of politics makes it difficult truly to understand what happened, why it happened, and what conclusions we should draw from its having happened.

The documentary is, as I said, well worth seeing and is suitable for classroom use. In the latter case, it will be most effective if used in conjunction with analytical treatments such as Marc Sageman’s “Understanding Terrorist Networks.”

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