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'Flight' pays tribute to unlikely 9/11 heroes

It's ironic, in a way, that Kiefer Sutherland narrates ''The Flight That Fought Back," the Discovery Channel's film about the passengers and crew who thwarted their hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sutherland's TV persona, federal agent Jack Bauer on the Fox show ''24," is the sort of grim-faced authority figure Hollywood likes to conjure for our protection, a law enforcement man who boldly flouts the rules for the sake of the public good. What happened on United Airlines Flight 93, the one that crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., was quite the opposite. The government was scrambling. No rescuer was coming. So 40 hostages on a doomed airplane came up with their own plan.

In the shadow of another disaster, their story is especially resonant. Last week, as people starved and died waiting for aid in New Orleans, an 18-year-old commandeered a school bus and drove evacuees to Texas. Circumstances have a way of making their own heroes.

Hurricane Katrina news has nearly overshadowed the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the television dial is full of offshoots and tributes. The History Channel alone is airing five 9/11-related documentaries this weekend. Most of them promise to be tough viewing. Four years later, it's still just as hard to see the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center.

But the unlikely heroes of Flight 93 are worth revisiting, since their rebellion is so bold and so well-documented -- in the cockpit voice recordings, the messages they left on answering machines, the conversations they held with friends and relatives on the ground.

The film relies partly on sit-down interviews with those mourners, partly on dramatic reenactments of the flight. (Sutherland presides in his husky voice, narrating practically under his breath.) And while it's hard to hear ''dramatization" without raising an eyebrow, the technique is mostly effective here, partly because the acting is solid and the actors look uncannily like their real-life counterparts.

Still, for much of its length, the film is strangely flat. A long setup strips away some of the drama, and at times, the interviews upset the pace. It's only once the hijacking begins that the structure pays off: We learn what the passengers were saying into cellphones and airphones, and what they were hearing from the other end.

To keep their hostages acquiescent, the outnumbered terrorists had said they had a bomb and were returning to the airport to make demands. But the twin towers had already been struck; the plane's true fate was becoming clear. It's gripping, and torturous, to watch the passengers and their loved ones come to terms with the news.

Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw's husband, a pilot, encouraged her to gain control of the plane. Passenger Tom Burnett's wife, at home with three small girls, urged him to ''sit down and be still." Passenger Mark Bingham's mother -- who had wondered, at first, whether to tell her son the truth -- eventually left him a voice-mail message: ''Try to overpower these guys if you can. I love you, sweetie. Good luck. Bye-bye."

The scenes play out in eerie slow-motion; in the hour they remained in the air after the hijacking, the passengers had time for calm conversation and even reflection. At one point, passenger Elizabeth Wainio's stepmother sensed her shallow breathing and offered a strange instruction: ''Let's take a few deep breaths and look at the beautiful blue sky." Wainio did, allowing her nerves to steady and her strength to form.

That glimpse of quiet resolve is as powerful as any rallying cry -- though, of course, we also hear from the Verizon employee who recited the Lord's Prayer with passenger Todd Beamer, then heard him say, ''Let's roll."

At this point, the hand-held cameras shudder and shake, and the film veers into quasi-fiction: The phone calls were cut off and recordings turned murky. The determined look on the passengers' faces is speculation, as is the panic in the terrorist pilot's eyes.

It's what people on the ground would've wanted to see, and that's probably enough.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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