Last Night's Viewing: The Plot to Bring Down Britain's Planes, Channel 4


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The Independent Culture

You're sure it was Thursday night, and not Sunday? There were moments last night when you wondered if you were watching Homeland on Channel 4. Glib as it may seem to compare that confection with an important documentary about a plan to kill 2,000 people, the makers of The Plot to Bring Down Britain's Planes had evidently plundered the terror-thriller playbook to create a film that was as challenging to the fingernails as anything Sergeant Brody has delivered.

At times, it felt like 24 on steroids, which is an achievement, given the cast included the un-chiselled features of John Reid, a former Home Secretary, in place of Kiefer Sutherland's snarl. More remarkable still was the level of tension built by a standard production of talking heads and reconstructions whose conclusion was never in doubt. We knew those planes stayed up, but how our nerves would be tested by the inside story of the plot to bring down the plot.

In short, we learned why flying has become so tiresome. What Richard Reid did for our shoes, these guys did for our liquids. The film recounted the surveillance, in 2006, of a group of men in London, one of whom was in cahoots with an alleged al-Qa'ida operative in Pakistan. Evidence showed the plotters behaving strangely with drinks bottles and hydrogen peroxide usually destined for hairdressers. When their attention turned to transatlantic flight timetables, fear crackled on polyester like static as suits in Washington and London raced to respond.

"Do you understand what will happen if we miscalculate," John Reid recalled telling his security chiefs, perhaps enjoying the studio lights rather too much. "There will be a huge and tragic loss of life, and there will be the tragic loss of your job, my job, and the government will fall." No pressure, chaps!

Evidence built of a plot to detonate simultaneously explosives mixed in drinks bottles on flights from Heathrow to the US. The tension would have been high enough without the Spooks styling. There were satellite images, snappy reconstructions and scenes of happy families in airports perhaps shuffling towards a sorry end. For some, the film-makers will have gone too far. Did we need the dramatic soundtrack? In places, the sound effects were so pervasive I expected to hear the familiar 24 "clock-tick" either side of the ad breaks.

You wondered too about the accuracy of some scenes. Did the covert entry into what became known as the "bomb factory" really come so close to disaster when a man walked towards the house just as a surveillance operative nearby lost sight of his target? Who knows, but it was a brilliantly directed.

The most thrilling scene came with the climactic arrests. The rest we learned at the time in news bulletins, and in the new security restrictions at airports. But the real tension in the film, away from the special effects and frenetic camera work, was that which had simmered throughout between London and Washington. The Americans wanted swift arrests, but MI5 fought to gather more evidence to be sure of convictions. Suggestions that the relationship remained special were thinly veiled at best; the subtext was of a furious disagreement.

There are more subtexts besides, about the true extent of the plot, and the disputed fate of Rashid Rauf, the alleged al-Qa'ida middleman, who, the US claims, was killed by a missile in 2008. For much of the film you felt as if you were being given privileged access to classified information, but, as thrilling as it was, the conspiratorial smirks and silences of the US security chiefs left you feeling there was a lot more to this plot than drinks bottles and egos.