In 1989, a United Airlines flight that had been intended to fly from Denver to Chicago ended up having a total hydraulic failure and had to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. As someone who has an interest in heroic flight efforts against disastrous circumstances, I have taken an interest in the actions of the crew of United Airlines 232 and this movie was a made for television movie starring Charlton Heston in the role of the comedic flight captain Al Haynes (who has sadly passed) that has high production values for a television movie and some compelling drama. The ensemble cast does a good job at wrestling with the knowledge that one has done one’s best even if that best is not good enough, making this film one of the earliest cinematic portrayals of PTSD as a formal part of its plot–all the more interesting as the disorder was only starting to become better known and mainstream in the course of the 1980’s (as a personal note, I was diagnosed with it myself in the mid-1980’s, only three or four years or so before this flight took place).
The plot of this movie is somewhat interesting in that it focuses not on the heroic crew of the stricken airplane itself, although these are included, but on the context of the plane’s landing in Sioux City and how it was that the area of Siouxland had been prepared for the disaster that was to come their way. In fact, the film begins with some frustrating efforts to mimic a plane crash that had people waiting for hours to be taken to hospitals and demonstrated the lack of teamwork that had existed among the emergency crews at the time. The film spends quite a bit of time looking at the personal relationship between the head of the emergency committee and the head of the airport fire department, who do not get along at first but are able to respect each other. Also included is a discussion of the communication and teamwork that happened between different agencies from three different states who all worked together to help preserve the lives of nearly 200 people on that doomed United Airlines flight who made their unscheduled emergency landing on a closed airstrip and then broke up in a cornfield, after which we see the rescue efforts that take up a substantial part of the film.
Overall, this is a film that demonstrates the heroism that is required to successfully deal with crises as not being the product of a moment but the product of preparation as well as self-reflection and critique. The opening scenes providing a look at an airline disaster preparation drill that went very poorly, with a lack of communication and a lack of coordination. By the time that the disaster came to them, they were ready for it, and did a good enough job that they were not only praised by Captain Haynes as well as this movie but also became a model for disaster preparedness for other areas. One of the more telling details of this film is the ambivalence of the film towards the press, who are pushy, ask bad questions, and serve as parasitic elements to the efforts of the first responders. One wonders if the media will have the same sort of soul searching that might allow them to be a beneficial part of society the way that the film’s failed drill served to remind the first responders of their shortcomings in time to rectify them for the real thing.