‘Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103’: Napa Valley Review

Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Napa Valley Film Festival

Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 Still - H 2015

Lessons learned aren’t always heeded.

A documentary revisiting the 1988 tragedy yields still-painful memories for many families of the victims.

More than 25 years after the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the memories of that fateful day remain painfully fresh for the families of many of the victims. Filmmaker Phil Furey, a Reuters TV news reporter and producer, revisits the shocking terrorist attack and its complicated aftermath in a new documentary that draws distinct parallels with contemporary issues of international conflict. As terrorist activity spikes again worldwide, the doc could attract timely attention in a variety of small-screen formats.

When the Pan Am Boeing 747 jet en route from London to New York’s JFK international airport blew up over rural Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew aboard, as well as 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground, the disaster was initially treated as an aviation accident. However, a subsequent investigation by Scottish authorities and the FBI revealed that plastic explosives smuggled into the plane’s cargo hold and concealed in luggage had triggered the blast. A worldwide investigation and manhunt identified two Libyan intelligence operatives as prime suspects, but Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi initially refused to turn them over for trial. After the imposition of UN economic sanctions on Libya, an unprecedented compromise was eventually reached that saw the pair tried in 1999 by a Scottish court temporarily based in The Netherlands, resulting in the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and the acquittal of Lamen Khalifah Fhimah.

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The investigation and trial revealed an interconnected series of security and terrorist incidents leading up to the attack, including the US targeting of Libya’s military operations in the Mediterranean and the 1986 Libyan-linked bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen and resulted in President Reagan ordering air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. In the end, Megrahi served only about eight years of a life sentence before Scottish authorities announced that he had prostate cancer with only weeks left to live and granted him compassionate release in 2009, after Libya admitted responsibility for the bombing and compensated victims’ families in 2003. Megrahi returned to Libya and lived nearly three more years before eventually succumbing to cancer.

Furey weaves news footage from the bombing timeline and subsequent legal and political developments together with interviews with relatives of the victims, as well as family photos and home video, focusing primarily on the parents of college students who died in their early 20s. Some continue to express outrage over the shoddy treatment they say they received from Pan Am and US authorities. “The State Department and the government tried to sweep this whole thing under the rug from day one,” says Pete Lowenstein, whose son Alexander died in the bombing.

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The families formed a group that pressured successive US administrations to pursue justice. A financial and legal judgment against Pan Am that proved the company’s security standards were “willfully negligent” and the settlement offered by the Libyan government resulted in varying levels of compensation for many families. However, repeated revelations that the normalization of relations between Libya, the US, Great Britain and other European nations was essentially motivated by business interests pursuing Libyan oil reserves continued to traumatize family members.

Furey’s compassionate examination of the impacts of the bombing on the victims’ families, compiled over nearly a decade of research and interviews, skillfully assimilates a voluminous, wide-ranging body of information, but doesn’t reach any surprising new conclusions. A reverential tone that sometimes seems too involved in the interviewees’ personal trauma also detracts from a more objective evaluation of the tragedy. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, as well as the recent terrorist bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt and the deadly IS strikes in Paris, it isn’t clear that revisiting the Pan Am 103 events offers actionable clues to improving air safety or minimizing international conflict. However, US and Scottish authorities have reportedly identified two new suspected Libyan co-conspirators who may have been involved in the crime and could eventually shed more light on the bombing of the Pan Am airliner.

Production company: Since 103
Director-writer: Phil Furey
Producers: Phil Furey, Spencer Averick
Directors of photography: Mike Green, Sven Lindahl, Phil Furey
Music: Phil Furey
Editors: Spencer Averick, Phil Furey

No rating, 85 minutes