‘My Brother’s Bomber’ Is Investigative Journalism Done Right
A journalist on a personal mission waded through the ruins of the Libyan revolution and helped break open a decades-old terrorist conspiracy.
Ken Dornstein was 19 years old in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The blast and resulting crash killed 270 people, including Dornstein’s brother.
He never got over the death, and after college became a journalist and turned his considerable talents to finding answers to the Lockerbie bombing. His results — the Frontline documentary My Brother’s Bomber — aired on PBS this month.
You can watch the whole thing right now on Frontline’s website.
Authorities spent years investigating the attack, and in 2000 a Scottish court tried Abdelbaset Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah for the crime. The court found Megrahi guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. But both investigators and the victims’ families felt unsatisfied.
“We got part of a conspiracy, but only a small part,” one investigator told Dornstein.
In 2009, Scotland released Megrahi — who was dying of cancer — on compassionate grounds. He returned home to Libya, where the government greeted him as a hero. “I’m watching him go free live on television,” Dornstein says. “I’m asking myself, ‘Is the murderer going free and how far would I go to find out if he is who he seems to be?”
Megrahi died in 2012. But the case was far from closed. The Libyan government’s involvement was obvious to both investigators and the families of the dead, but was hard to prove.
Hard, but not impossible. As revolution swept through Libya in 2011, Dornstein seized the opportunity to enter the country and hunt for his brother’s killers. Thanks in part to his efforts, Scotland may soon indict two more men involved in the bombing … after almost 30 years.
At just under three hours, My Brother’s Bomber documents Dornstein’s harrowing journey from America to Scotland to Libya. The film is similar to the recent popular anthology documentaries Serial and Jinx, but is better than both.
Serial followed Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and subsequent murder trial of former boyfriend Adnan Syed. It was a compelling story with a disappointing, if honest, conclusion.
Jinx chronicled the life and crimes of erstwhile billionaire Robert Durst — a man who many felt had gotten away with murder for years. Jinx was a well crafted documentary series with a satisfying ending. It seemed to show Durst’s confession, a fact reinforced when authorities scooped him up after HBO aired the final episode.
Dornstein’s My Brother’s Bomber also details an investigation with a satisfying ending. Shortly after airing its final episode, Scotland announced it was pursuing new criminal charges against Libyan nationals who were part of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s inner circle.
But there is something different about My Brother’s Bomber, something better. Dornstein manages to use his personal tragedy to propel himself forward into a frenzied investigation, yet he still retains enough objectivity and journalistic integrity to separate himself from the case.
It’s a fascinating balancing act to watch. My Brother’s Bomber isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before. Dornstein enters a collapsing Libya and picks through underground warehouses full of documents and cassette tapes. He’s looking for anything that might answer some of his questions.
“A lot of them is, you know, gathered intelligence, tapped phone calls,” Libyan journalist Suliman Ali Zway explains as he guides Dornstein through one of the bunkers.
That strange mix of rabid-journalist drive mixed with empathy and objectivity sets My Brother’s Bomber apart. Toward the end of documentary’s first episode, Dornstein watches footage of Libyan ex-dictator Muammar Qaddafi being pulled from a drainage tunnel and killed by his former subjects.
Qaddafi was, if not the architect of the Lockerbie bombing, the man who gave the order. But Dornstein experiences no glee in watching him die. He even says he feels sorry for the man.
A similar and more tense moment happens later when Dornstein enters the home of convicted Lockerbie conspirator Megrahi. He’s allowed in the house, but barred from visiting the dying man. He asks for the restroom and a young boy shows him the way. In that moment, Dornstein realizes he could push past the boy and face one of his brother’s murderers.
But he doesn’t. The man is dying and has long maintained his innocence. Dornstein doesn’t believe he is innocent, but he knows there is nothing to gain by making a scene. His personal pain over his brother’s death is part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story.
Contrast that with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki’s behavior during the filming of Jinx. As the episodes of HBO’s expose of Durst wore on, Jarecki inserted himself more and more into the story. This was necessary, to some degree, as the story of Jinx became less about Durst’s past and more about his attempts to game the filmmakers and control his image.
But Jarecki’s scenes often felt scummy. He barely containing his joy as Durst’s lies unraveled, and seemed like he was performing for the camera.
The opposite happens in My Brother’s Bomber. The closer Dornstein gets to some kind of truth, the more objective and focused he becomes. Perhaps the years have eased the wounds of his brother’s death, or perhaps his training as a journalist allowed him to pull back from the maudlin.
It’s not that My Brother’s Bomber doesn’t ever appeal to emotion — it does. The first few minutes of every episode invoke Dornstein’s death to involve the audience in the story. But it never feels overwrought or inappropriate.
This documentary is important. It digs up answers on a decades-old case that seemed as cold as Qaddafi’s corpse, and it proves that serialized, high-profile documentaries can be both entertaining and well reported.