American 965

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

American 965
"A compelling puzzle."

On the 20th of December, 1995, tragedy struck America Airlines flight 965 en route from Miami, Florida, to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport in Cali, Colombia. The initial investigation found that a navigation error led to the crash which claimed 151 lives. But why would two experienced pilots make such an error? There was no alcohol in their bloodstreams. The Boeing 757-200 was equipped with all the latest navigational aides. Something didn't sit right. Two decades after the incident, retired British Airways Captain Tristan Loraine decided to make his own investigation based on the records from the crash, and this documentary is the result.

It begins with the story of the crash itself, incorporating news footage, insights from experienced aviators and a personal angle provided by two of the survivors, a father and daughter, who owe their lives to the persistence of rescue workers in a remote location under almost impossible conditions. An investigator who quickly arrived on scene describes the horror of seeing the dead (as someone used to dealing with damaged machines in very different circumstances) and how he only just managed to retrieve the black box flight recorder as armed men were raiding the wreckage and helping themselves to anything that looked valuable. This proves invaluable as Loraine listens to the voices of the doomed pilots along with people who had known them, puzzling over the slowness of their reactions and the odd way they respond to the growing awareness that they're not where they're supposed to be.

About halfway through, we get to the crux of the matter: air pollution in the cabin. This is an issue which Loraine has addressed in several previous films, from 2007's Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines to 2019's Everybody Flies. Whilst he does have a personal stake in the matter, having been forced to quit flying due to health issues which his doctors think are related, his approach is well-evidence, professional, and neither stylistically nor technically what one would expect from a mere conspiracy theorist. He has previously brought forward many industry workers who agree with him, many with similar persistent medical problems, and here he introduces more. Whilst his focus is on material detail rather than personal account, this might be considered material evidence in itself.

Here, Loraine focuses heavily on the records made by the original crash investigators, which highlight some striking anomalies. No effort is made to present a counter-narrative but there is no evidence, here or elsewhere, that the big airlines wish to comment on the matter, though trade organisation Airlines for America has stated that multiple studies show cabin air quality meets safety standards (which does not, of course, preclude other studies having contrary results, rule out the possibility of occasional failings or address the potential risks associated with rare but severe failings). Though it's not addressed here, several hundred complaints are made by passengers or crew every year, the real difficulty being that they're usually received far too late for useful investigation to take place.

By focusing this film on a specific disaster, Loraine no doubt hopes to reach a different audience and to take advantage of one of those odd biases in the human brain: we are, as a rule, far more frightened by a very small risk of violent death in a crash than by a much higher risk of slow, moderate but nevertheless debilitating poisoning. By including interviews with the widow of one of the pilots he introduces another form of emotional pressure: we all want to see this woman provided wit some relief by seeing her husband's name cleared. It's manipulation, but it doesn't mean that he's wrong, and one doesn't need to be an expert to recognise from those recordings that something was wrong in that cabin - for both those men. No alternative explanation for this seems to be available.

All else aside, Loraine has become a highly skilled filmmaker, presenting his audience with a film which, despite the technical nature of its subject, avoids nerdiness and instead presents a compelling puzzle. Aerophobes may wish to avoid it but for everyone ese, it's fascinating viewing.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2021
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An investigation that raises new questions about the tragic accident of American Airlines flight 965 on the evening of December 20th, 1995.

Director: Tristan Loraine

Writer: Tristan Loraine

Starring: Ross Briscoe, Dane Scott

Year: 2021

Country: UK

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