'TWA Flight 800' documentary review: More painful than conclusive

The partially reconstruced shell of the remains of

The partially reconstruced shell of the remains of TWA Flight 800 are seen inside the hangar of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia. (July 2, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

THE DOCUMENTARY "TWA Flight 800"

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Epix, also simulcast on Epixhd.com and will be screened July 20 at 3 p.m. at the Stony Brook Film Festival, Staller Center.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 en route to Rome, with a stopover in Paris, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just south of Long Island. All 230 people aboard were killed. This film assembles six former members of the official crash investigation team who cast doubt on the official explanation -- an explosion caused by vapors ignited by a spark in the fuel tank. They say -- among many things -- that the FBI, which took the lead in the investigation, tampered with evidence, or withheld it, while a CIA-produced video that purported to establish the sequences of events leading to the crash was, in a word, hogwash.


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The film is largely reported by Tom Stalcup, a physics PhD and longtime head of the Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization; he began investigating the crash in 1997, and has long been a proponent of the missile theory. He says three missiles, specifically three proximity fuse missiles, brought the jumbo jet down.

MY SAY There's nothing flaky about "TWA Flight 800," from Kristina Borjesson, who wrote, directed and co-produced the documentary. There are no fruitcake conspiricists here, or lunatic fringers. Nelson DeMille isn't selling another novel, nor is Stalcup another Pierre Salinger who throws out accusations and theories just because they sound kind of right. At the very least, this film builds a case -- a surprisingly powerful one -- for plausible uncertainty.

But one problem begins right after the closing credits when a long list appears of those who declined to be interviewed (up to and including President Bill Clinton), leaving viewers with the impression that they have something to hide. But maybe they should be left with the opposite impression: that these people had no interest in fighting Stalcup over every uncrossed "t" or undotted "i" in a hugely complex investigation that was closed in the last century. Also, you should also know that Joseph Kolly, who was the National Transportation Safety Board's chief fire and explosives investigator on the Flight 800 investigation, told reporters recently in response to this documentary that he remains "absolutely" certain that the fuel tank was the main cause.

So noted. Now watch, and you really should -- particularly if you were among those who stood outside on that muggy evening so many years ago, looked to the south and saw something you will never forget. In fact, the single best part of this film is a smartly edited sequence that fast-cuts witness testimony into a crescendo of detail and fact, with each person precisely recalling the sight of something ascending into the dusk, followed by a violent explosion. A trial lawyer who watched this might call it "damning evidence."

But effective as this film is in hacking away at the official explanation, it can't fully cleave it either. If there were three missiles, then where are their remains -- the bits, pieces, mechanisms? Did they all just evaporate? Did radar -- or did it not -- track three missiles to the plane? That should be easy to establish, except that it's not established here. And how did the entire U.S. government -- which can't even shut up an Edward Snowden -- keep the lid on a conspiracy of this magnitude for so many years?

At the very least, this film indisputably establishes that pain and doubt -- often lashed together -- are deeply human traits. The brief passage of 17 years isn't about to shake them from their foundation.

BOTTOM LINE A well-produced film that is ultimately more painful than conclusive.

GRADE B

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