A& E's 'Flight 93': From Tragedy to Tripe, Nonstop

9/11 as movie-of-the-week: Karen Holness as a Flight 93 crew member.
9/11 as movie-of-the-week: Karen Holness as a Flight 93 crew member. (By L. Pief Weyman -- A& E)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

Who will profit the most from exploiting the obscene tragedy of Flight 93? In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001, it seemed unthinkable that even the sleaziest producers, Hollywood studios or TV networks would attempt to exploit any aspect of a nightmare that the nation had witnessed in horror as it occurred, especially one that left a scar so deep it may never heal.

But we were naive. It wasn't that long before CBS and HBO aired documentaries about the tragedy -- both produced, it must be said, with great restraint and dignity. The farther we get from the date of the tragedy, however, and the more time that passes, the less likely such qualities will be evident in any films made about it.

Such is the case with the A&E Network's "Flight 93" airing tonight at 9 -- the second TV movie dramatizing what happened on a United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco that was to be the fourth of four planes involved in the 9/11 attacks; the terrorists' destination in this case was probably the Capitol or the White House.

In addition, there have been published reports that a theatrical movie about Flight 93 will be ready by next summer, the peak moviegoing period of the year. Seeing the story enacted does offer a degree of catharsis; we get to witness hijackers being punished, to some degree, for the vile thing they are a part of; with a cry of "Let's roll," passengers stormed the cockpit that terrorists had commandeered, apparently forcing the plane down in a Pennsylvania field well short of its conspicuous intended targets, and killing all 44 aboard.

But the headline on a network press release reflects hype more than respect for the heroes: "A&E Network Proudly Presents 'Flight 93,' " it says of the film, described disingenuously as "a moving tribute" to those who died fighting terrorism on that plane. The film is airing about four months after the Discovery Channel offered "The Flight That Fought Back," which premiered on Sept. 11, 2005, the fourth anniversary of the tragedy. No doubt that film was meant as a "moving tribute," too.

Racing to the air with movies based on news events is nothing new, but one might have thought the magnitude and enormity of 9/11 would have made it somehow sacrosanct, untouchable, not to be defiled by the polished ploys and slick gimmicks of professional writers, directors, producers and actors.

A&E not only "proudly" presents its version, but at the conclusion dedicates the movie "to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 and to their families." A&E will make a contribution to the "Flight 93 National Memorial Fund," and so on. One needn't be very cynical to scoff at such attempts to cloak the film in high-mindedness. It will air on a commercial network, it will include about 30 minutes of ads, and it will figure in the network's nightly, weekly and monthly ratings.

For all the misgivings justified by its existence, the film is unquestionably well made, though it does not represent as substantive an effort as the Discovery Channel production, which intercut dramatized scenes of what is believed to have happened on the plane with the comments of family members and friends of some of those who gave their lives in the counterattack.

The movie spends its first eight minutes unreeling credits and showing us details germane and irrelevant as Flight 93 is prepared for takeoff; the pilots suit up, passengers wait at the gate (one woman carrying the book "What to Expect When You're Expecting"), and the terrorists shave -- one of them even, for some reason, shaves his chest.

Before long, relatives of those in the plane see on TV the appalling, astonishing scenes of the World Trade Center towers aflame and then collapsing after two hijacked passenger planes were flown into them. Telephone calls are made to and from the United Airlines jet as the hijackers, after tying red sashes around their heads, take over the plane, brutally stab a passenger who tries to protest, and eventually abort their plan when passengers use a serving cart to smash through the cockpit door.

Most people are shown behaving heroically or bravely. There are the inevitable yet still achingly poignant moments of final goodbyes said over the cold mechanism of the telephone, as when a mother and daughter part forever, ending their lives together, with the simple banal act of hanging up.

But the film raises one question it can't answer. The pilot and first officer are twice warned, via text message, that a multi-pronged terrorist attack is in progress and are advised to "beware cockpit intrusion" on their plane. And yet when there's a subsequent knock on the door, they hesitate hardly at all before casually opening it.

The terrorists, who had been holding knives or box cutters on members of the flight crew, storm in. It's not made clear if the pilots feared for the safety of those crew members and thus opened the door for that reason, or if they just did it unthinkingly. The simple fact is that the filmmakers don't know what happened at every moment of the crisis in the sky and much of the docudrama is of necessity speculation -- speculation that in some instances could be misleading.

Some of the acting seems woefully inadequate, but the director, Peter Markle, as well as veteran executive producer David Gerber seem to be trying to minimize histrionics. The terrorists aren't depicted as ghouls; they don't snarl or growl or look filthy, and a couple seem young and frightened. But there is no particular virtue in humanizing those whose acts were inhuman. It becomes just another of many troubling things about the film -- troubling in ways the filmmakers did not intend -- and all these stem from the fact that there's no real reason for it to exist in the first place.

Yes, the sacrifice of the passengers and crew must be remembered. And those involved in "Flight 93" try to make that point. But how many more TV movies, or theatrical movies, or books or iPod downloads or whatever does that justify? In the end, the main point of "Flight 93" is the same as everything else that will precede and follow it on A&E tonight, and that, quite simply, is the lust to make a buck.

Flight 93 (two hours) premieres at 9 p.m. on the A&E Network.


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