Efficient and unsettling, A&E’s Flight 93 (airing Monday, Jan. 30, at 9 p.m.), about the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers took on the terrorists, is well aware of that day’s haunting dichotomies: the black plumes of smoke on a blue-sky morning; the horror invading what should have been just another boring Tuesday. The movie’s opening scenes juxtapose a pilot leaving his sleeping family and heading to work with a terrorist casually shaving his face and chest; a soon-to-be murderer breezing through security with a mom-to-be skimming an advice book during pre-boarding.
Director Peter Markle (NBC’s Saving Jessica Lynch) doesn’t hit these images too strongly. Instead, he counts on our media-fed memories — how many times did we see the grainy footage of the terrorists passing easily through airport metal detectors? — to invest ordinary scenes with a queasy tension. Names funnel through the ticket scanner, relieved passengers barely make the flight. It’s a sad, foreboding opening, this 10 minutes in which nothing much happens.
Flight 93 has gained a mythology in the years since 9/11. Informed via their cell phones that their plane was to be the final of four suicide missions, the passengers chose to charge the terrorists, and their efforts resulted in the plane crashing short of its presumed White House target. In dramatizing the event, there are major obstacles: how to capture the quiet guts this decision took while avoiding the temptation to turn the passengers (including Jeffrey Nordling as Tom Burnett and Brennan Elliott as Todd Beamer) into Bruce Willis-style heroes? How to show the horror of the situation without exploiting it? Based largely on phone records and other public documents, Flight 93 manages to overcome these challenges fairly well. So measured is its treatment that even Beamer’s now-famed directive — ”Let’s roll” — is issued while the camera focuses elsewhere. There is bloodshed and screaming and sickening lurches as the terrorists, amateur pilots, steer the plane (one wonders how director Paul Greengrass, whose Bourne Supremacy was notably seasick, will handle the turbulence in his upcoming big-screen version of Flight 93). But the hardest gut punches come in scenes reminding us how naive we were. Passengers stare curiously as four men tie red bandannas around their heads in unison; the pilots receive a hijacking warning, then open the door anyway for a tentative knock.
The movie is diffuse — we move between the flight and half a dozen family members dealing with the situation on the ground. (In the film’s one major hokey note, their houses are all brightly lit, upperclass dwellings with pretty yards.) The exchanges between those on the soil and in the sky are believable and heartbreaking — one woman doggedly tells her husband ”we’ll work this thing out,” as if willing the situation to be fixable. It’s a typically fine-tuned moment, like so many in Flight 93 — a generous yet unbombastic treatment appropriate for heroes who armed themselves only with pots of boiling water and trays of soda pop.