"THE PLANE THAT Fell From the Sky," an edition of "CBS Reports" airing at 10 tonight on Channel 9, is one of TV's rare documentary thrillers. It examines and re-creates a commercial aviation incident that could have been a tragic catastrophe, and in so doing, paints a gripping picture of the way people react under the severest form of stress and investigates the politics of calamity as well.
On April 4, 1979, a Boeing 727 en route from New York to Minneapolis with 89 people aboard mysteriously went out of control and, after spinning around once in the sky, plummeted from 39,000 to 5,000 feet within one minute. The cockpit crew of TWA's Flight 841 regained control of the craft two seconds before it would have crashed. The passengers survived, but few if any would ever be the same.
It was CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter's idea to construct a documentary re-creating the event and analyzing its aftermath, and to place the project in the collective lap of Paul and Holly Fine, the brilliant husband-wife filmmaking team whose exacting, imaginative work had been featured for years on WJLA-TV here. A Fine documentary, "The Saving of the President," reconstructing the hours spent in the emergency room by President Reagan after the assassination attempt in March 1981, was picked up by ABC and shown on "20/20" last year.
Obviously, ground is being broken by the Fines that some will find unsettling--the introduction into a news broadcast of "reenactments" of events by those who participated in them. There will be hand-wringing in paneled halls about whether or not this pollutes the precious mainstream of broadcast journalism, whether again someone has dared to cross the line that is supposed to separate reality and dramatization. But the Fines have used the technique wisely and well, so well that they have created a piece of white-knuckle television. Something has to be done to save the hour-long documentary as a viable news programming form; the Fines have done something.
Where the documentary can more reasonably be criticized is in the way it lurches from thriller to mystery story to investigative reportage. "Plane" tries to tell not just one story but three: the story of the near-crash itself, reenacted by the passengers; the story of the investigation into the cause of the mishap and the way the crew was apparently made the scapegoat by Boeing and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); and the story of how the effects of the incident lingered in the lives of those involved. The last two stories seem under-told; only the first is fully realized.
"Plane" starts off with the reenactment. CBS News flew 39 of the 82 passengers and the original three-man cockpit crew to Los Angeles for three long days of shooting on a Hollywood set that duplicated the interior of a 727. For a stretch of about 18 minutes, correspondent Bill Kurtis fades into the background so the passengers and crew can narrate the documentary themselves, while we watch them on screen duplicating their words and reactions (including screams, gasps and prayers) as they remember them from the flight.
It began as a typical flight: Takeoff from Kennedy Airport was 2 1/2 hours late. When, soon into the flight, the plane's 6 1/2-mile nose dive began, G-forces all but laminated the passengers to their seats--even held a man's drink on an armrest undisturbed. A woman in the washroom at the time was thrown out its door. A nurse holding a baby instinctively began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when the baby turned blue from lack of air. Some cried, and one man recalls thinking to himself, "I wonder what it's going to feel like to hit."
The plane was not out of danger even when the crew regained control. There was a second distinct possibility that it would crash. Later in the program, the passengers look back on the incident and how it affected them. One man saw a psychiatrist for six months. One woman says she is still kept awake at night recalling how the plane shook. And one man rather tragicomically tells Kurtis, "I remember thinking something like, I had forgotten to tell my wife that I loved her before I left. And only after this whole incident did I realize I really didn't love her. So I got a divorce."
It's a better story than any fabricated Hollywood airplane movie, but there are resemblances to Hollywood airplane movies in what actually happened. The first sign of trouble was "a very slight vibration," one of the crew recalls, and that recalls the vibration felt by John Wayne in "The High and the Mighty." A solid explanation for the incident is never found; those who have seen the "Twilight Zone" movie or the original "Twilight Zone" episode called "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" may satisfy themselves that this airborne crisis, and perhaps many, can be traced either to gremlins or to the basic fact that flying is, after all, still an unnatural act.
But there is more to the story than the drama of the moment. What comes later is less sensational, but just as compelling. The cockpit crew, at first considered heroes for having saved the plane and all those aboard, later saw their names dragged through mud by the NTSB investigation, one that let Boeing examine its own plane and pronounce it guilt-free, although both passengers and crew recall that when they boarded the plane they noticed it was "dirty, filthy," "old and beat-up," and, said one man, "It looked like a real Model-T 727 . . . certainly not a new piece of equipment." The documentary records how the crew has suffered; only one is at this moment still active in commercial aviation.
From New York, Paul Fine says he does not see the documentary as a horror show: "We don't want to scare people. Some good came out of this thing. Some aircraft safety measures were changed as a result of it." He admits, though, that working on the broadcast has made him more wary of flying than ever.
CBS News, which spent about $300,000 on the program, couldn't afford to locate and transport all 82 passengers, but Holly Fine found a good cross-section in Minneapolis, where most of them lived. For 15 of them, the trip to Los Angeles for the program was their first air travel since the nightmarishness of Flight 841.
Some CBS News old-timers have grumped privately about the documentary being gimmicky and lightweight. But the subjects touched are central, resonant and fascinating. Paul Fine says, "I'd rather watch something like this than a lot of dry talking heads. Documentaries go downhill because most of them are boring." It's one charge that will not be leveled against "The Plane That Fell From the Sky." The other charges will tend to bounce off, because this program offers new life and new hope for the full-length documentary on television.