David Fresina’s documentary film, Return to Dwight and Nile: The Crash of PSA Flight 182, looks at the events of September 25, 1978, when Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 collided with a Cessna while on its final approach to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. The resulting crash landed in the North Park section of San Diego, killing seven people on the ground, and the final death toll included all of the 135 people on Flight 182, and the two people in the Cessna.
A gruesome scene of destruction, this film reconstructs the events of the day with archival footage, stills and first-hand accounts from those on the ground who narrowly avoided the crash, first responders on the scene, journalists and relatives of the victims. It’s an emotional, and often upsetting story, for example, as tales of how the firefighters went about dealing with the scattered human remains among the devastation are shared.
There’s also a sense of closure to be found in the film, as people who otherwise have not talked about what they experience that day begin to finally open up. The North Park community also shows a sense of healing, coming together to recognize and honor the tragic event from over 35 years ago. To understate the obvious, it’s a powerful subject to make a film about.
Which leads into my main criticism of the film, which is that the content does not need help to make an emotional impression, but the filmmakers seem to think a sentimental score is necessary in certain spots. The result is a feeling of manipulation; let me feel without telling me now is the inspirational moment, because so many other moments in the film are score-free. Let the content speak for itself, because it does fine on its own.
It also feels long, and I’m torn on my own opinion about that. On the one hand, I understand that the interviews in the film are acting as a form of closure for those being interviewed, and thus the empathetic human in me thinks that cutting them short does a disservice to the interviewed. At the same time, keeping them long, and sometimes rambling, does the pace of the documentary a disservice.
Ultimately, the interviews did their good when they were conducted, in my opinion, and thus now they should’ve served the best possible presentation of the material in a manner that doesn’t linger for the audience. I think there’s probably a very compelling cut of this film that comes in somewhere in the mid-thirty minute range, if not shorter, and the rest makes for great extended material on a DVD.
All told, though, I think Return to Dwight and Nile: The Crash of PSA Flight 182 succeeds as both an informative documentary and a tale of closure and healing. I think it probably has far more value to those who remember that day, or were directly related in one way or another, than to someone like me, who wasn’t even born for another two months and change after the crash. That said, even removed, I could grasp and empathize with the tragedy, and I think the shared humanity of the piece is what carries it through and will ultimately make it timeless.
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