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‘TWA 800’ Film Blames Missiles; Hero Defenders: TV

The reconstructed TWA Flight 800 aircraft.
The reconstructed TWA Flight 800 aircraft. "TWA Flight 800" airs Monday, July 17, on Epix at 8 p.m. New York time. Source: Epix via Bloomberg

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- Bill Clinton declined an interview request for Kristina Borjesson’s missiles-did-it documentary “TWA Flight 800.”

He must be hiding something.

At least, that’s the sort of thinking that pervades the film.

“Flight 800,” airing July 17 on Epix, is a 90-minute rehash of old theories, forensic minutiae, calcified (if endlessly intriguing) eyewitness accounts and the familiar, post-9/11 demonization of naysayers.

The catastrophic jet liner explosion off the coast of New York’s Long Island 17 years ago gave rise to a durable conspiracy theory: The plane, carrying 230 people from New York to Paris, was the target of surface-to-air missiles.

Both the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board conducted separate investigations, each dismissing the possibility of an attack.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the explosion was a short circuit of electrical wiring.

Physicist Tom Scalcup -- the reporter and subject of “TWA Flight 800” -- sees a world of wiggle room in “probable” and questions how the NTSB findings squared with eyewitness accounts of missile-like objects streaking upward toward the plane.

Computer Simulations

(For an idea of how cemented that image has become in our national consciousness, see “White House Down,” which includes an almost note-for-note recreation of the Flight 800 computer simulations available for years on the Internet.)

“TWA Flight 800” chronicles a dogged, two-year effort by Stalcup and several former crash investigators to convince the NTSB to reopen the case.

Stalcup’s interviews with like-minded witnesses are, indeed, fascinating -- miniature case studies of people convinced of what they saw and burdened by nearly two decades of being dismissed as little more than self-proclaimed UFO abductees.

“I thank you very much,” says one woman, through tears, to Stalcup. “It’s very frustrating that nobody gives a shit anymore.”

Who Dunnit?

But the film doesn’t seriously question whether 17 years of telling (and hearing) the stories hasn’t merely reinforced faulty accounts -- a Safety Board member who raised the possibility years ago remains vilified as a “Mr. Fix-It” for...who, exactly?

TWA? The FBI? The CIA? Politicians, as a still-grieving father says?

Timed to the July 17 crash anniversary and the documentary’s premiere on Epix, Stalcup and his team filed a petition with the NTSB to reconsider the original findings.

The film suggests that new analyses of radar evidence points to a “high velocity” explosion, rather than the NTSB’s finding of a “low-velocity fuel-air explosion.”

At least, that’s Stalcup’s conclusion -- as reporter, star and senior scientific advisor for the documentary.

The film offers no dissenting interpretation of his facts, or even outside acknowledgement that his facts are facts.

Nor does the documentary attempt to explain how a cover-up that would require hundreds of participants could remain secret for 17 years.

Like the “Loose Change” 9/11 truther films, “Flight 800” buries that simple, unavoidable question in an avalanche of detail, paranoia and righteousness.

“TWA Flight 800” airs Monday, July 17, on Epix at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: *

‘Gideon’s Army’

Public defenders get some hard-won love in the HBO documentary “Gideon’s Army.”

Directed by Dawn Porter, the film chronicles young public defenders in Georgia with huge caseloads and dismal odds.

“Gideon’s Army” -- the title references Clarence Earl Gideon, whose 1961 arrest resulted in the Supreme Court’s determination of a right to counsel -- spotlights two armed robbery cases.

The outcomes won’t be spoiled here, but Porter has chosen her lawyers wisely. Travis Williams is all youthful idealism, while Brandy Alexander, only slightly older but significantly wearier, doubts herself, her clients and the system.

“Gideon’s Army” does justice to both.

“Gideon’s Army” airs Monday. July 1, on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and New York Scene.

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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