It's best to consider "The Flight That Fought Back" a drama based on fact rather than some type of fusion documentary. Showing Sunday on the Discovery Channel, the film liberally mixes dramatic re-creations with interviews in its detailed account of the fate of United Airlines Flight 93, one of four U.S. jets hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and the only one not to reach its target.
Though credible, the show is, at least in part, a speculative account of the events onboard the plane after it was seized by terrorists and flown toward Washington, D.C., before crashing in Somerset County, Pa. The filmmakers are straightforward about the inferences drawn, placing a disclaimer at the film's opening that states that what follows is based on the 9/11 commission report, interviews with families and friends of the passengers and crew, as well as conjecture about how those aboard may have reacted during the flight, especially the final 35 minutes.
That said, the film treads an uneasy path between the omniscience we expect from dramatists and the reportorial objectivity required of journalists. Documentaries have long breached that space, at least since "Nanook of the North," but the importance of the material here obliges us to treat it as "a" version of what happened rather than "the" version. Based on the information available, it is a balanced, well-executed explanation of how the passengers likely rallied to wrest control of the plane from the four terrorists.
The film, narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, provides a gripping timeline beginning early that morning as the various passengers make their way to the Newark, N.J., airport expecting to be in San Francisco later that day. The seemingly normal morning moves forward as people rush to make the 8 a.m. flight, in some cases changing their arrangements to be on it.
Director Bruce Goodison, a British filmmaker, tells a harrowing tale, adroitly using the natural tension of the events of the day as they unfold. What begins as a simple flight home or a last-minute business trip quickly turns to horror.
The film also provides information about the terrorists' preparations, grimly describing how partially full cross-continental flights were selected to minimize the number of people to control and maximize the amount of jet fuel the planes would carry.
As the other three planes are hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, word slowly reaches the passengers and crew of Flight 93 that they might be next. Stirring cellphone calls are re-created and movingly recalled by family members and friends who paint vivid portraits of their loved ones.
Actors chosen for their resemblance to the 33 passengers and seven crew members portray them in a uniformly understated and purposeful way. Goodison allows the emotion to come from the interviews, wisely avoiding heavy-handed music or overplaying the patriotic angle. For the most part, those on Flight 93 are portrayed respectfully, as normal folks who behave courageously under unusual circumstances.
Naturally, the speculative elements of the film increase as it nears its end. Audio recordings of the final five minutes of the flight have not been released to the public but have been played for some of the families. It is from their interpretations of those tapes that the last scenes are drawn.
'The Flight That Fought Back'
Where: Discovery Channel
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Ratings: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with an advisory for violence)
Director Bruce Goodison. Executive producer Andrea Meditch.