9/11 heroism, as it unfolded

Times Staff Writer

Reliving the heroism aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, via a TV movie, is destined to both stir the senses and trivialize the event. "Why do we need this?" I kept wondering, watching A&E;'s "Flight 93." At the same time, as the actor playing passenger Mark Bingham raced to the gate to just barely make his flight and meet his doom, the pulse raced and the stomach sank.

"Flight 93" follows the Discovery Channel's more textured docudrama "The Flight That Fought Back," which aired on the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11; also in the works is a Universal feature, also called "Flight 93," directed by "The Bourne Supremacy's" Paul Greengrass.

It's no surprise that the first baby steps in films about Sept. 11 are focused on the passengers who got on their cellphones and learned of unfolding events, then courageously stormed the cockpit and forced the terrorists to crash into a field near Shanksville, Pa., about 20 minutes from its apparent destination of the White House or the Capitol.

That day, there were 37 passengers and seven crew on board Flight 93, flying from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, including the four terrorists in first class. The last of the planes to be hijacked, with the plotters evidently foiled as officials on the ground scrambled to catch up to what was occurring, Flight 93 has since become if not a feel-good story about that horrific day then at least a feel-a-little-better story, a way to honor the victims and their bravery.

And I suppose "Flight 93" achieves this. But I couldn't help also feeling buzzed on you-are-there voyeurism, a version of how I feel when I flip to "Titanic" on one of my HBO channels, sticking around past bedtime to watch the ship sink.

That's not to say "Flight 93," executive-produced by David Gerber, is callous or oversold; it's a pretty obeisant reenactment, conveying an as-it-happened atmosphere, its no-name actors adding to the realism. As such, it's a more straightforward but less affecting profile of the horror and heroism aboard Flight 93 than was "The Flight That Fought Back." You got to know the passengers more fully in that film, which combined a mess of things -- reenactment, "The 9/11 Commission Report," interviews with the passengers' loved ones, Kiefer Sutherland's narration -- to create its pulse-pounding tick-tock of the hijacking.

There was also a touch of terrible irony via interviews with a flight instructor and martial arts expert who had come to know Ziad Samir Jarrah, the terrorist who is believed to have taken over piloting the plane. "Flight 93," by contrast, does not attempt such layering. The film begins with the passengers arriving at the airport and ends with the plane plowing into the field; the in-between consists mostly of the surreal, heart-rending phone calls some of those onboard were able to make to their husbands and wives and mothers and, in the case of Todd Beamer, to a supervisor at GTE/Verizon, with whom he prayed.

As their hijacked plane soared erratically, these people -- Tom Burnett, Lauren Grandcolas, Jeremy Glick -- and others had an opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones, to issue frantic instructions to alert the authorities, to leave messages. "Pick up, sweetie," Grandcolas says to her husband on their answering machine. "Oh, well, I just wanted to tell you that I love you. We're having a little problem on the plane. I'm totally fine...."

"Let's roll" was Beamer's line, subsequently picked up by President Bush as a kind of tagline in the war on terror. The script, by Nevin Schreiner, is based partly on interviews with relatives of the victims, and nothing about the dialogue hints at the kind of embellishment that might make you sick. What plays out is a disaster movie based on the actual, its ending already understood if not comprehended, fully.


'Flight 93'

Where: A&E;

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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