'Flight 103': compelling drama delivers questionable 'facts'


December 07, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story" is both gripping and troubling television.

The docudrama, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO, reconstructs the events that led to the explosion aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, two years ago. The bombing resulted in 270 deaths -- 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground.

As drama, the film is a powerful one. It is occasionally a bit rag-tag in the way it encapsulates months and years of events in a sentence or two of narration. But, overall, it keeps moving the viewer forward through the events leading up to the bombing, with the irresistible tick-tick-tick of the old "Mission Impossible." The intense narrative pace is sustained by superbly focused editing.

But then, there's the the "docu" part. That's where the trouble almost always starts with docudrama -- the combining of fiction with fact for the sake of making real-life events more entertaining to television viewers.

"Flight 103" purports to be delivering the facts on complicated and important events. It suggests, for example, that the bombing could have been avoided if Pan Am officials had been truly concerned about security rather than just the appearance of security. Furthermore, it depicts Pan Am's top executives -- played by Ned Beatty and Vincent Gardenia -- as having cynically manipulated the security issue to lure passengers to Pan Am.

Pan Am says the docudrama is marked by "false and defamatory depictions" and a "reckless disregard for the truth." Several scenes are dead wrong, according to Pan Am. None of that is included in HBO's telling.

HBO's film also claims to know who did the bombing -- an operative of the Syria-based terrorist Ahmed Jibril. But that has yet to be determined by any official investigation. Nor is there any agreement about that among the news organizations investigating the bombing.

CNN said Wednesday night that its investigation has learned that a Libyan intelligence agent planted the bomb. ABC and NBC News, meanwhile, have aired reports saying that the bombing was partially the result of a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that got mucked up.

So, why should we believe HBO's "dramatized reconstruction" rather than news investigations by CNN, ABC or NBC?

In this case, HBO's credibility is greatly enhanced by the fact that "The Tragedy of Flight 103" is co-produced with Britian's Granada Film, which has a top-flight documentary unit. But just because Granada is an impressive outfit doesn't mean it automatically got the facts right.

Many of the sins of docudrama are present -- invented dialogue, actions taken out of the actual context in which they occurred and placed in others for dramatic effect, scenes and characters totally invented, filmmakers playing judge and making calls about the various players.

Peter Boyle, for example, plays the good guy here, just as he did in "Challenger," ABC's silly documentary about the events leading up to the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft. In "Challenger," Boyle played an engineer with a conscience who battled higher-ups for better safety standards and lost. In this film, he plays a security chief with a conscience who battles higher-ups for better safety standards and loses. Was the security chief really such a good guy, or was it Boyle's performance that made him likable?

The Tragedy of Flight 103" is entertaining and important enough that the docudrama debate -- as old as it may be getting -- should be continued. Docudrama rewrites our national history so as to skew it toward entertainment values -- such as conflict, drama and celebrity. In doing so, it has the potential to rob us of our real memory and limit the possibilities of what we can imagine for our futures.

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