Friday, February 03, 2006

A Study in Contrasts

I was sitting in a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening, flipping through the TV channels when I came across a remarkable made-for-cable film on the A&E network. Simply entitled "Flight 93," the film tells the story of the passengers and crew of the United Airlines flight that fought back against their hijackers on 9-11, forcing the jet to crash in a Pennsylvania field, killing all onboard. The heroism and sacrifice of Flight 93 saved the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans on the ground. Before it crashed, Flight 93 was on a heading for Washington, with a likely target of the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

Based on a number of sources--including phone calls from passengers and crew to their family members on the ground--the film is a stirring depiction of the events on Flight 93, beginning with the routine boarding and depature from Newark. When the hijackers seize the aircraft (killing a passenger and the cockpit crew), the remaining passengers and crew members seem paralyzed, giving in to the natural human instinct to cooperate and hope for the best.

But, as they learn of the other events of 9-11 through phone calls to the ground, the heroes of Flight 93 decide to fight back, eventually storming the cockpit in a brave effort to retake the aircraft. As they push their way into the cockpit, the hijackers elect to fly the jet into the ground in rural Pennsylvania. The force of the impact and explosion were so great that rescue crews spent hours looking for the wreckage before realizing that virtually nothing was left of Flight 93.

Produced by TV veteran David Gerber and superbly directed by Peter Markle (Faith of My Fathers), the film brillantly depicts the spirit and courage of ordinary men and women who inspired a nation. And, perhaps most importantly, screen writer Nevin Schreiner tells the story without the moral relativism that typically affects Hollywood productions. We learn nothing about the hijackers, other than the fact that they are hell-bent on taking the jet and killing as many Americans as possible. Compared to Spielberg's Munich or the recent George Clooney vehicle, Syriana, Schreiner's honesty is nothing short of remarkable.

As Scott Johnson at Powerline notes, Flight 93 has already registered with viewers; the film's debut on A&E last Sunday was the most-watched program in the network's 20-year history, attracting nearly 6 million viewers (a huge audience by cable standards). By comparison, Munich and Syriana have fared poorly at the box office, although both films have received multiple Academy Award nominations.

When the Emmy nominations are announced later this spring, it will be interesting to see how Flight 93 fares. I'll go out on a limb and predict that the industry will ignore the film, because its message is out of synch with the rest of Hollywood.

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