Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”

Original Airdate: October 19th, 2005 on Discovery Channel Canada

Even if you’re a fan of cable TV documentaries about airplane crashes—and who isn’t—you may not be familiar with Mayday, but that could just be due to nomenclature. It’s called Air Crash Investigation in the UK, other European countries, Australia, South Africa and Asia. Here in the US, it airs as Air Emergency…and also as Air Disasters, for some reason. But all these shows stem from Cineflix, a Canadian production company specializing in filling the hours on the cable dial with somewhat lurid nonfiction. I’m glad to get another chance to look at a documentary, because I haven’t gotten a chance to do that since all the way back in the first case study.

Strengths

  • Telling an important story. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July of 2014, killing nearly 300 civilians, there was justifiable international outrage and quite a lot of grumbling about Russian imperialism. It was also a good time to remember that back in 1988, the US shot down a passenger plane, killing nearly 300 civilians. This was the sad fate of Iran Air Flight 655, and Mayday attempts to explain how it happened. While I have quibbles with how Mayday went about doing this, it’s laudatory just to get the word out that, yes, this happened. As Max Fisher noted in a relatively conservative recounting in The Washington Post, you’d be hard-pressed to find many American teenagers who are aware of this incident—and you’d be hard-pressed to find many Iranian teenagers who aren’t, because it’s understandably considered a national tragedy.

Weaknesses

  • Reenactments. I complained about Monsters We Met doing this, and many of the same criticisms apply here. It’s cheesy and not terribly immersive. Time spent watching dramatic reenactments is time that could have been spent going more in-depth on the subject matter, and as you’ll see, there was plenty of room to go more in-depth. I think the reenactments here serve a slightly different purpose than they do in Monsters. There, they’re meant to buttress scanty information about our long-dead ancestors by turning them into tangible people we can see and thrusting a narrative onto them for the purposes of making the material easier to grasp. Here, it’s meant to dramatically convey what the producers apparently felt was a key part of the story—the intense time pressure that Captain William C. Rogers III was under as he was trying to make the decision about whether to fire on the airliner. The problem here is that these reenactments create an aura of reality that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts. As the documentary wears on, we learn that the two main rationale provided by the crew of the USS Vincennes for firing on Flight 655 turned out to be entirely baseless when investigated by the Pentagon. The crew claimed that the plane was broadcasting a transponder signal identifying it as an Iranian military plane—they assumed an F-14A Tomcat—but, no, it had been broadcasting the civilian airliner code the entire time. The crew claimed that the airliner had been descending towards the Vincennes in a classic attack profile—data from the Vincennes itself established that this wasn’t the case. In light of this, many Iranians—and, indeed, the Iranian government itself—hold that the attack was intentional and designed to elicit Iranian concessions in a ceasefire being negotiated between Iran and Iraq during their ongoing war. Two months later, the Ayatollah obliged, probably due to some combination of this incident and the fact that then-US ally Saddam Hussein was cheerfully deploying weapons of mass destruction in the form of mustard gas on Iranian troops and civilians. I realize that Discovery Channel documentaries aren’t as eager to embrace ambiguity as Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, but these reenactments create a master narrative of truth where there really isn’t a reliable one to be had. In some cases, there seems to be pure invention happening—the version of Rogers we see in the reenactments seems a lot more aghast about the events of that day than the Rogers that they actually interview for the show. Indeed, on the show and in public he seems 100% defensive and 0% remorseful. Not surprising, since the Navy gave him a fucking medal.
  • Shallow and one-sided. Mayday spends an awful lot of time diving into the nitty gritty of a moment by moment reenactment of what happened aboard the Vincennes, and this takes valuable time that could be used to provide some larger contextual information. No airtime is given to talking about the larger story of the Iran-Iraq War, or really about Iran in general. Exactly one Iranian person gets to talk in this documentary: the grieving brother of Flight 655 captain Moshen Rezaian. Everyone else is, to a man, a current or former member of the United States Armed Forces. It’s almost as though Iranian lives don’t matter. It certainly doesn’t discuss the fact that the US was hardly a neutral party in this war, supplying arms and intel to Hussein’s Iraq. It also doesn’t mention that only nine short years prior to the downing of Flight 655, the Iranians had overthrown a US installed dictator and torture enthusiast, which is really an essential fact when reckoning with any modern Iranian history, especially a piece of Iranian history so essential to understanding the fraught relationship between Iran and the US. It doesn’t mention that it was Iraq that took the war to the Gulf through a strategy of aggressive blockades—it makes it seem like the Iranian gunboats the Vincennes confronted that day were just more rogue state terrorists harassing poor, innocent Kuwait. I was hoping for a bit more neutrality from Canada, but this documentary about an American war crime is unabashedly pro-American.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Mayday supplies mostly accurate, if biased information, so it wouldn’t be out of place in a course of study about Iran Air Flight 655—but definitely don’t make it your only source. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect Mayday fares a bit better when avoiding political subjects.

NEXT TIME: Martial law continues as we examine TV canon: M*A*S*H!

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Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”