HBO's 'Flight 103' contends air tragedy was largely preventable

December 08, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

Two ironic moments in the film may tell you all you need to know about "The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story," an HBO docu-drama movie premiering this weekend (at 9 p.m. Sunday, with repeats Dec. 12, 15, 17, 20 and 23).

Early on, a British expert (Timothy West) who has been hired by Pan Am to beef up the airline's security has to ask a top executive (Vincent Gardenia) to explain a term he has just used: "the load factor." Turns out the dehumanized language means ** "passengers."

And later, when another Pan Am security official in Frankfurt (Michael Wincott) objects to a proposal to open and inspect luggage going aboard the fateful flight, he says the procedure would cause delays and irritate the passengers.

"All these people want is to get home on time," he says.

Of course, they didn't get home at all.

On Dec. 21, 1988, 259 passengers were killed when a terrorist bomb hidden inside a Toshiba radio/tape player in the cargo hold of the Boeing 747 exploded. Another 11 people died on the ground when falling debris rained down upon the village of Lockerbie, Scotland.

The powerful point of "The Tragedy of Flight 103," produced by HBO and an investigative team from Granada Television, is that the tragedy was preventable. Specifically, it contends that bottom-line cost consciousness left shoddy security in place while the airline promoted itself as the safest American carrier.

The airline had pretty specific warnings that it was the target of terrorists, including a description of the type of bomb device to be involved, yet it implemented no specific screening steps in response, according to the movie's depiction. Nor was any public warning made.

Further, the film suggests West German police had the terrorists fTC responsible in custody not long before the bombing yet let the key bomb-maker go for murky political reasons. The terrorists are identified here as members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, acting in revenge for both America's 1986 bombing of Libya and the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airline by an American warship.

Pan Am has disputed HBO's portrayal as "largely a work of fiction," according to a report in this week's TV Guide, although in May a presidential commission criticized the airline's security procedures in its report on the Lockerbie crash.

As with all re-creations of real stories, especially those still in the headlines, viewers are left wondering about the accuracy of "Flight 103." Indeed, works of this type -- including two earlier HBO/Granada collaborations, "Tailspin: Behind the Korean Airliner Tragedy" and "The Investigation: Inside a Terrorist Bombing" (about northern Ireland) -- require a new term for accurate representation. Call them investigative docudramas, part journalism and part theater.

Indeed, to some degree this film is old news already because it was completed before the most recent revelations about Flight 103. They suggest the actual bomb planter might have been a covert operative for America's Drug Enforcement Agency who was unwittingly used by terrorists who knew his baggage would not be scrutinized. There's nothing of that here.

Viewers might legitimately wonder whether top Pan Am officials, as portrayed by Gardenia and Ned Beatty, actually uttered the dialogue we hear. And how does anybody know any of the by-play which takes place among the terrorists?

On the other hand, the near-documentary style, resulting from some 40 interviews and complete with narration voice-overs in some places, projects an earnestness of reportorial intent. And that seems easier to accept, for instance, than the frequent TV-movie-of-the-week distortions of historical stories for dramatic purpose.

There is no question of the film's power, either, despite the fact we all know how things will be coming out in the end. Although hugely understated, its handling of the actual crash comes off far more powerfully than the super realistic jet explosion in this summer's "Die Hard II." An English air controller watching his radar screen sees the plane's blip suddenly become two, then many as he reports, "multiple returns. . .fanning out downwind."

And while details of the movie may be in dispute, it seems impossible to argue with West's character when he says that (at least until this crash), "the airlines have never taken the terrorist threat seriously."

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