One of the most controversial air disasters of all time and the fourth largest air disaster at the time, when an Air New Zealand passenger jet crashes into Mt Erebus in 1979 it sent shockwaves around the world. With everyone in New Zealand in mourning, eleven regular police officers were sent to the Antartica to recover the remains of the passengers. Just how do you even begin to cope with the scale of something so big in somewhere so inhospitable?
The disasters faced
The air crash itself and the logistical nightmare that follows for the recovery team both mentally and physically.
Erebus Operation Overdue is a mixture of present-day interviews, real-life footage from 1979 and modern-day reenactment. It mainly focuses on the plights of five men involved in the clear-up operation following the remarkable plane crash that took the lives of 257 passengers and crew. For the policemen plucked from the street to go to the mountain, they’ll need to prepare for the conditions. For the crash investigator, he will be struggling to get around the CEO of Air New Zealand who is not very forthcoming in support. The movie interweaves the three elements to tell the story in a matter of fact way without any dramatisation. As the director Charlotte Purdy says in the DVD extra features, frankly there is no need for additional drama as Air New Zealand still refuse to exonerate the pilots. We follow the cleanup, the toll it takes on the crew involved and the ongoing courtroom saga around the cause of the crash.
Why is it worth watching?
For me, this movie feels like an extended larger budget version of an Air Crash Investigation episode, which this crash has actually been on. Sadly that programme, along with Seconds Before Disaster has about as much tact, empathy and respect to an incident as my appetite for cake does to my waistline. Erebus Operation Overdue takes a bigger budget production, removes the narration and lets the humans who dealt with the disaster talk you through what happened. That gives the film an excellent narrative, an elevated level of authenticity and also feels respectful when dealing with sensitive issues.
Some of the best understanding you can get from disasters is hearing from the witnesses or survivors themselves and you can see the pain etched into their eyes. They are also incredibly humble with it, in particular, Greg Gilpin who then by chance spotted a documentary later on and was able to provide evidence on what was found in the wreckage. It also continues to give me an even larger appreciation for those who come to our aid in a real-life disaster too. These policeman and other crews had nothing to help them but their grit and determination to see the ordeal through and I think sometimes we forget that. It also highlights how times have changed since 1979 in terms of how we view and deal with mental health. The support for the clear-up team was non-existent and that has left a lasting effect on all of them.
Where I do think the film could have gone a bit further was with the final section of the evidence and court battles. As things have never been officially resolved in one way or another (because the evidence is likely destroyed) then I think the film is probably safer to not speculate. It might also take away from the achievements celebrated and documented here too.
The 70’s costumes and settings are really well done, as is the actual crash site itself where the main chunk of the movie takes place. The mangled wreckage of metal, body parts and belongings is chilling. What’s impressive is that often when put next to the photos taken on-site from 1979, things look very similar. Add into that some beautiful vistas and some heavy weather and you have a convincingly disturbing beauty to it all.
The level of similarities pan through to the characters. Each main person we speak to have their 1979 counterpart and they look very similar and portray their man well. It is also worth pointing out the vintage footage of the Air New Zealand CEO that’s used in the film is creepy too. He just oozes an aura of distrust and anger.
‘…it was just a blank page and just nothing on there and nothing ever would be written on there. I’ll never ever forget that, as long as I live. Those were the biggest mental challenges combined with the physical environment and it was overwhelming. At stages, it truly was.’
Stuart on finding a passengers diary where the page for that day had a header on and nothing else after it.
Three memorable moments
- The above section for its emotional impact
- The developed photographs section from the passengers themselves. How the cameras survived amazes me but seeing them brought to life is both fascinating and eerie.
- Seeing the men get recognition some 25 years later and bringing closure with it.
A fascinating and expertly put together docudrama that fuses interviews, reconstruction and real footage to show just how hard it is to be the clear-up team following on from a disaster. Then stick yourselves on an ice mountain and at the centre of a cover-up and you’ve got a collection of people that deserve everyone’s respect and support.
Rating: 4 / 5 Excellent
If you liked Erebus Operation Overdue then you may like…
- Tsunami: Caught on Camera – Entirely made of real footage and witness accounts
- 9/11 Answering the Call: Ground Zero Volunteers – Post 9/11 support documentary
- Pray for Japan – in-depth look at rebuilding Japan’s communities post 2011 tsunami
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