Flight 93Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/30/06 22:38:13
(Worth A Look)
Before we watch Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” we must contend with “Flight 93,” the made-for-basic-cable film that beat Universal’s release by several months, and which now arrives on video mere days after the studio picture debuts in theaters.I’m a little surprised that before this year, only one film on the subject had been made, and that was a documentary released in 2002. This is odd, considering how Flight 93 has become a cottage industry of sorts, with books from the widows and bumper stickers with catchy slogans - which makes sense, considering how the optimistic spin of the story allows for an up side to our nation’s bleakest day in modern history: the idea that the hijackers were stopped from destroying their fourth target by a handful of Average Joes is such a cheerful antidote to the darkness of September 11 that we’re almost too willing to ignore any unappealing truths (most powerful among them: that we can never actually know if the passengers’ attempts were at all successful; that there remains a chance that the plane was in fact shot down by the military; that our desire to lionize the passengers forces us to assume that everyone on board was a hero, when we will never know who was and who wasn’t; that there are so many unknowns to ever satisfy everyone, and our desire to fill those unknowns with the happiest possible theory may not really be best for us). Those looking to root for America can surround themselves in “Let’s Roll” memorabilia. And yet it’s only now that we get a dramatic account the flight.
One hears “TV movie about 9/11” and expects the worst. It comes from director Peter Markle, the television veteran who recently delivered such other rah-rah true story telepics as “Saving Jessica Lynch” and “Faith of My Fathers,” a John McCain-in-Vietnam biography; and screenwriter Nevin Schreiner, whose resume includes a series of TV thrillers with titles like “Web of Deception” and “A Nightmare Come True.”
But then we notice an absence of the usual B- or C-level stars - where’s Steve Guttenberg as the pilot, or Meredith Baxter as the housewife? That the filmmakers chose instead to fill their movie entirely with unknowns is a good sign. This could very well steer clear of all the exploitation and jingoism that could take the project into inescapable tasteless territory.
Our fears of cheaply handled patriotic cheese are thankfully shooed away with “Flight 93.” Much like Greengrass’ big budget film, this smaller effort maintains a healthy distance from the politics of the material. What we get here is a real-time docudrama that sticks to the facts. We only know what everyone else knows; there is no revelation of the hijackers’ agenda, no cutaways to anyone unconnected to the flight, no winky lines of dialogue foreshadowing what would follow over the next four years. This is the events of one flight, and nothing else.
Schreiner claims to have stuck as closely to the evidence as possible, reproducing phone calls, plane transmissions, and other communications with stern precision. Granted, much of this stuff is recalled from memory by passengers’ family members and emergency personnel, but for the most part, the screenwriter shows some welcome restraint, keeping his script away from embellishment as much as possible.
This is not to say Schreiner hits it just right. There is, from time to time, a large dose of cheese that slips in as the filmmakers tip their hand and reveal the very politics they were working to avoid. Most notable are the scenes involving Mark Bingham’s parents. We’re shown long shots of the characters deliberating the Right Thing To Do, followed by carefully worded approvals for battling the hijackers. Scenes like this underline the movie’s point when it doesn’t mean to; they edge the film into the same dangerously jingoistic area other scenes work effortlessly to avoid. (A final bit of on-screen text ditches any impartiality the film was hoping to achieve, celebrating the passengers as heroes and commending them for saving Washington from further disaster. It’s welcome, of course, but the wording is a bit clumsy, a bit of over-the-topness that lessens the emotional impact of the final scenes.)
Other small moments also push the film into being much more manipulative than it should be. One late scene, in which Todd Beamer (played by Brennan Elliott) recites the Lord’s Prayer, threatens to deliver a my-god-is-better-than-your-god message (the movie ultimately, luckily pulls back). A few shots of the airliner whizzing across the sky, including one in which it clips a passing Cessna, borders on summer popcorn spectacle; Markle forgets from time to time that this is most definitely not an action flick.
And then there’s the decision to focus almost entirely on passengers with children. Every family member called at home is shown with a baby or young child, which becomes a running gag of one-upmanship: when we first see Bingham’s family, every single person in the room is holding a baby! So much for refusing to be manipulative.
Fortunately, these are rare off moments in an otherwise gripping and heartbreaking account. The cast collectively refrains from overplaying, relying instead on a tender subtlety and the knowledge that the events themselves will supply the drama. No single actor stands out, but no single actor gives anything less than their best. These are names and faces unknown to me: Elliott, Kendall Cross, Ty Olsson, Monnae Michaell, April Telek, Jeffrey Nordling, Colin Glazer. These (and many more) are pitch perfect in making this a rather honest production.
(Shawn Ahmed, Amin Nazemzadeh, Zak Santiago, and Asim Wali deserve special mention as the cast members with the unfortunate job of portraying the hijackers. The quiet determination and methodical actions make them frightening; their visible fear makes them human. Astonishing performances.)“Flight 93” is most certainly destined to be overshadowed by “United 93,” but this should not diminish what Markle and company have done here. Think of this not as a weaker imitation, but as a companion piece of sorts to Greengrass’ film. Working on a television budget and with a collection of unfamiliar actors, the filmmakers have overcome the stigma of the TV biopic, and then some. “Flight 93” is a powerful experience, a worthy film that not once cheapens the memory of September 11.
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