What could have the uncomfortable feel of exploitation plays like a taut, grim thriller documenting in near-real-time detail the fateful events of Sept. 11, 2001, leading to the downing of United Flight 93. A Universal feature based on the story is in production, which has already been the stuff of bumper stickers (“Let’s Roll”) and a Discovery docudrama that mixed interviews with dramatic recreations. Viewed on its own, this movie surely benefits from the passage of time — as well as a steady hand in avoiding the pitfalls of a descent into melodrama.
Made with the cooperation of some family members of the victims, “Flight 93” chronicles the by now well-known story of the passengers as it slowly dawns on them that they are aboard a suicide mission and must attempt to retake the plane from its hijackers. Gradually, through cell phone conversations with loved ones and emergency personnel on the ground, they come to grips with the challenge they face and the necessity to take action.
In that respect, the flight — and its failure to strike a high-profile target, instead crashing in rural Pennsylvania — became a poignant and comforting symbol in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, pored over by newsmagazines for every crumb of emotion.
It’s a surprise, then, that director Peter Markle (who recently directed A&E’s John McCain biopic “Faith of My Fathers”) and writer Nevin Schreiner manage to retrace Flight 93’s path and still make it seem fresh, as both passengers and their families grapple with the horror of what’s unfolding.
A&E notes that the script is “fully annotated” and based “solely on what has been revealed in the public record,” yet that’s not entirely true. Drama invariably conveys its own messages and makes its own demands, from the beads of sweat on the terrorists’ brows to the pained but noble expression on the face of Tom Burnett (Jeffrey Nordling) as he bids farewell to his wife, Deena (Kendall Cross), who is among those who cooperated.
At its core, however, “Flight 93” eschews cheap emotional flourishes or gimmickry in a tale that needs none, featuring convincing performances and a gripping pace, particularly given the preordained outcome.
Inasmuch as it was inevitable these events would be told and retold in every imaginable medium, A&E — hardly known for taste and restraint with its new series — has delivered the made-for-TV movie component about as well as it could be done.