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'Frontline' Reveals the Humanity Behind the Victims of the Lockerbie Bombing
September 29, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

The numbers pale in comparison to the 9/11 terror attacks — 270 people killed, some in midair aboard Pan Am Flight 103, en route from Frankfurt to Detroit, and some on the ground, in the then quiet, bucolic town of Lockerbie, Scotland. For the families of those killed, though, the date Dec. 21, 1988 will forever be etched in their memories.

PBS’s documentary showcase Frontline had been on the air for five years at that point. In the more than 500 films since, many of them Emmy and Peabody winners — 57 Emmys and 15 Peabodys to date, if you’re keeping track — Frontline has earned a hard-won reputation for clear-eyed, hard-hitting investigative reports, many of them about trends, topics and issues too controversial, too complicated or too labor-intensive for the major news networks to take on. As the cable-news channels trim resources, cut staff and embrace the cult of celebrity in their headlong rush toward infotainment over hard news, Frontline has tacked the other way, by favoring objectivity over opinion and preferring reason to emotion.  Time after time, in award-winning fare like “Hunting Bin Laden”, “The Torture Question,” “The Lost Year in Iraq,” “Generation Like,” “Climate of Doubt,” “The Choice” and “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” Frontline has stood at the fore of television journalism.

That’s why Frontline’s three-part season opener, “My Brother’s Bomber,” is such a risk, by turns frustrating and, by the end, profoundly moving.

“My Brother’s Bomber” takes a news event some 27 years in the past, and personalizes it through the private, at-times intensely emotional, recollections of filmmaker Ken Dornstein. Dornstein was just 19 when his older brother David, whom he remembers as a born artist with unquenchable curiosity, who said ‘yes’ to whatever life posed and who would write long hours into the night while the rest of the family slept, was among the 189 Americans killed in the bombing.

As often happens in the weeks, months and years following terror attacks, the victims were soon forgotten, as investigations were launched, trials held, appeals filed and demands made. Dornstein lost an older brother he idealized and looked up to, but he was hardly alone: 35 of the Pan Am passengers were Syracuse University students returning home for Christmas following their fall semester at Syracuse’s London campus.

Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Bernt Carlsson, Volkswagen America CEO James Fuller and rock musician Paul Jeffreys were among the more prominent passengers who perished that day, but even they were forgotten in what turned into a labyrinthine maze of conspiracy and diplomatic intrigue that eventually led all the way to Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.

For Dornstein, the entire incident was brought home yet again on Aug. 20, 2009, when the Scottish government released the only person convicted in the bombing, one-time Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (right), on compassionate grounds. Doctors diagnosed him with terminal prostate cancer. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Libya, and Dornstein found himself reliving his grief all over again. At that time, he resolved to make a film about the Pan Am bombing, as viewed through the eyes of a grieving family member who could not — would not — forget.

Al-Megrahi protested his innocence to the very end, fuelling more conspiracy theories. He died in Libya in May 2012, just two years and nine months after his release.

Dornstein, the Emmy-winning documentarian behind such Frontline films as “Sex Slaves” and “A Death in Tehran,” vowed to use every single aspect of documentary filmmaking he learned over the years to dig out the truth behind what happened, and revive his brother’s memory.

The result is an often revealing, at-times harrowing documentary about diplomacy, cynicism and political expedience, where the truth can be hard to find and even harder to prove. Behind it all is an intensely personal story about pain and loss — an early moment in Tuesday’s opening hour finds Dornstein at the dinner table, explaining to his young children and doubting wife why he’s about to do something as crazy as return to Libya to ferret out the truth, even as the country threatens to come apart at the seams — but those personal moments are merely prelude to a gripping tale of investigation and redemption.

“My Brother’s Bomber” is more personal — and personality-driven — than usual Frontline films. It shares more in common with the first-person, award-winning HBO documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst than it does earlier, more objective Frontline films like “Inside Obama’s Presidency,” “The Trouble with Antibiotics” and “Money, Power and Wall Street.”

“My Brother’s Bomber” is well worth three hours of your time. It’s a reminder that terrorist attacks are about more than dates and numbers, that there are real people, with real life stories, among the victims, and that every one of them has surviving family members, some of whom deal with grief better than others. That may sound simplistic — simplistic by Frontline’s standards, anyway — but it’s worth remembering.

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