Directed by George Seaton
Screenplay by George Seaton, based upon the novel by Arthur Hailey
Starring Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Dean Martin, Jacquline Bissett, Helen Hayes, Maureen Stapleton, Van Heflin and Barry Nelson
Back in the days before I was a cord-cutter, and before the channel stopped playing movies sans commercial breaks, I watched a lot of the IFC channel. To date it, this was back in the Matt Singer/Allison Wilmore days, both of whom have gone on to do other things, including the excellent Filmspotting SVU podcast.
Anyway, part of what I enjoyed about IFC was it’s eclecticism. Where else would you find blackspoitation classics like Foxy Brown and Coffy, rubbing shoulders with modern TV classics like Arrested Development? The other part I loved about IFC was it’s array of documentaries. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and also The Bus Movie. And it’s where I was first introduced to Jon Ronson’s documentary, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, which I love so much I bought the blu-ray of Full Metal Jacket, which I already had on DVD, simply because it has that doc on it.
More pertinent to our discussion, it’s also where I saw a doc called The Spaghetti West, which is about the rise, and inevitable fall, of Spaghetti Westerns. It considers the origins, the expansion, and eventual demise of the genre. One point the film makes is that in the beginning, the success of these westerns surprised people and then, in the wake of the success, other Italian producers started making them, too. Many were rushed into production and have a slapdash feel to them, what with having liberally raided the ideas and visuals of those that came before it. That said, some were completely original in their own way.
Unfortunately, as the market became glutted, and fatigue set in, the Spaghetti Western ran out steam, unable to outrun it’s own bloat. Eventually, the genre died in parody.
To be fair, the way Spaghetti Westerns died was not unique to it, as the Italian film industry did this sort of thing repeatedly. First, it was sword and sandals movies, then it was crime films. The natural course of these things was to start out serious, over-expand, then die when the piss is repeatedly taken out of you.
In many ways this history applies in full to the movie Airport, and the specific genre of airline disaster films. After all, the roots of the genre were planted in serious films in the 1950’s – e.g. The High and The Mighty – and rolled on right into the 70s with Airport and its sequels. Even if the genre didn’t burn as fast and hot as Spaghetti Westerns or Eurocrime movies, the airline disaster movie charted the same course: overexpansion, diminishing returns, a limited array of stories to tell strangling the genre, and eventually killed off in parody. See e.g. Airplane!
Except while the airline disaster film as a genre seemed to die with Airplane! and it’s sequel, Airplane II: The Sequel, it never really went away. After all, it lives on to this day in films like Con Air, Snakes on a Plane and Passenger 57.
Nevertheless, while the genre may not have completely died out, it’s pretty doubtful that any of them will find themselves nominated for Best Picture, as Airport was.
What’s It About?
On the same night a particularly heavy winter storm hits an airport, causing one airplane to wander off a runway and get stuck in the mud – partially blocking the runway – an unemployed demolitions contractor sneaks a bomb onto another plane in order to kill himself and pay off his insurance policy to his wife. Though his plot is discovered shortly after takeoff, he does manage to detonate the bomb. Fortunately, he is the only fatality. Unfortunately, the bomb damages the plane and it is only through luck and solid American aircraft engineering that everybody else on board makes it home alive.
Good, Bad or Indifferent
On the whole, Airport is hopelessly antiquated – such is the fate of films when the progress of the modern world intervenes. After all, Airport generally relies on two things to drive the plot forward which would be virtually impossible today, thereby negating this film from the outset:
- Helen Hayes plays a woman who regularly stows away on planes, because she can’t afford all the travel she likes to do. Given the increase in airport security since 9/11 alone, and the crackdown in boarding gate management, it’s doubtful she could stowaway on a plane today even one time, let alone the number of times she claims in the film to have done it.
- Van Heflin plays a man who carries a bomb onto a plane in a briefcase, which he refuses to let go of. Given the rise of metal detectors and other scanners employed at security, the chances on his getting a bomb onto the plane seem to be almost nil.
Aside from feeling antiquated, Airport is both visually lackluster and indifferently acted, with most of the cast striving to be passable, and no better.
The leads all play their usual type – George Kennedy is George Kennedy in the George Kennedy role. Burt Lancaster does Burt Lancaster in the Burt Lancaster role. Jacquline Bissett smiles and looks pretty, which is about all her role calls for anyway. And Dean Martin does his smarmy/suave thing as best he can, even if it seems a little more creepy than romantic by today’s standards.
The Award-winning performance in the film came from Helen Hayes as the stowaway – she won for Best Supporting Actress, her second Oscar. If we’re fair, her performance is fine, but hardly Oscar worthy. Yes, she charms as the sweet little old stowaway, and she does bring a spark to the movie when she pops onscreen that was missing before, but isn’t so great she needed an Oscar for it.
The one who should have won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress was Maureen Stapleton – she actually was nominated for it, but obviously lost. Anyway, she plays the wife of the bomber and gives a lived-in performance. She’s subtle, understated, and completely believable – given what she’s trying to do, it’s like she’s in a whole other movie altogether from the rest of the cast. If you would, consider the change in the look on her face when she realizes her husband’s left her to fly to Italy: Stapleton plays the moment small, but it is devastating. And just like every Oscar-worthy role should, she does get to go a little big in her breakdown scene, when she starts hysterically apologizing to all the passengers her husband almost killed. It’s a shame she had to lose the award but don’t cry for Stapleton – she won her own Oscar 10 years later for Reds.
Perhaps the broadest performance, in it’s own way, is from Van Heflin as the bomber. He’s sweaty and paranoid and even if he plays his role quiet, it’s the kind of role that usually falls over into parody. And while Heflin does exaggerate things, he still manages to hold it just to the right side of the line. Anyway, of everybody in the film he is the only one who seems to understand what sort of movie he’s in and acts like it.
The true standout performance in the film, for all the wrong reasons, is Jean Seberg as Lancaster’s loyal deputy and lover. In her best scenes she’s middling, while in her worst she’s just plain inert. Never a performer with any great emotional range, she does nothing to win me over here.
On the whole, the move is too long and much of it meanders over the same ground until finally the bombing plot kicks in. Too bad the bomb doesn’t really start to be a thing until roughly 45 minutes from the end. That said, once the bomb actually detonates, the film picks up steam and becomes engaging as the various narrative threads inartfully doled out before – the blocked runway, the storm, the bomb on the airplane – finally pull together. Sure, the special effects are basically non-existent and the camerawork does nothing to try to convince us the airplane isn’t just a set in some studio, but at least the film builds to a relatively-believable conclusion. If only the first 90 minutes of the film moved, or had the same impetus, as the last 45, then they might’ve had something good.
It’s Not Me – It’s You
In the past I’ve had a pretty loving relationship with split-screen effects, so much so I wrote a post here in praise of them. Yes, many hate split-screen, but I’m a fan, and the undisputed cream of the crop is Brian Depalma’s Carrie. Specifically, the use of split-screen in the prom sequence is masterful, fluid, adds visual interest, ups the tension, and is a master class in how to make the technique work for your film.
For the flipside of the coin, on what not to do with split-screen, please see Airport. Where Carrie used the technique to make it’s movie better, Airport uses it as a lazy, needless imposition that doubles-down on the films overall visual blandness. In a movie already bogged down with static, uninteresting visuals, the use of split-screen only makes it worse.
My Favorite Scene
My favorite scene in Airport is not so much a scene as a moment. It comes late, after the bomb has exploded and the plane is approaching the airport for it’s emergency landing. It’s an already tense moment and you can understand why one of the passengers might choose right then to start getting hysterical. Fortunately, a priest is sitting across the aisle from the hysterical man and knows just what the man needs – a smack right across the face. So that’s what the priest gives him. Just reaches out casually and – slap! – brings the man back to his senses. That moment left me howling with laughter because it worked on two levels: (1) the sheer natural, nonchalance of the priest smacking another man was startlingly funny, and (2) it called forward to a similar scene in Airplane! where the woman starts to get hysterical and all the passengers line up to casually slap her back to reality.
We’re All Heroes, Right?
Airport essentially follows three main characters as they deal with the situation – Burt Lancaster as the airport manager, George Kennedy as the leader of the airport teamsters, and Dean Martin as the pilot of the airplane. As you’d expect, each man is set up as the hero of their own story and contributes to the heroism of the overall story as well: Lancaster stands against the damn pencil-pushers on the airport board and inspires everybody to come together around his determination to get the airport ready for return of the bombed plane; Kennedy is the teamster who uses his brute strength – in a fashion – to actually get the runway ready for the plane to land; and, Martin heroically lands the bombed plane.
Except Martin doesn’t land the plane – it’s his co-pilot, played by Barry Nelson, who brings it in. How strange must it have been to pay a star like Martin only to have him be the guy sitting beside the real hero. If we’re honest, that’s the one revolutionary thing about Airport – it puts a big star in the movie and then makes him peripheral to the moment of truth.
Anyway, if you watch the film and wonder why you’ve seen the co-pilot, Barry Nelson’s, face before, it’s because he’s better known to film-fans as Mr. Ullman in Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining.
Better Than Best?
In Academy history there have been the barest few disaster films nominated for Best Picture – Airport in 1970, The Towering Inferno in 1974, Apocalypse Now in 1979 (to be fair, it’s a different kind of disaster, but still) and Titanic in 1997. Given the 1970’s were the last Golden Age of cinema, it’s odd that two (or, three) of these nominees came from that decade, when you’d think there were other, better things to nominate. But, sometimes that’s the way things work.
Anyway, Best Picture 1970 was Patton, a film I mostly enjoy, though it loses steam in the second half as it flirts with whether or not it really wants to top the three hour mark. I’m not sure I’d say Airport is better than Patton, even as neither is great to me.
In hindsight, I quite enjoy Women In Love, also nominated in other categories in 1970 – it won Glenda Jackson her first Oscar as Best Actress. Also, the Best Documentary winner, Woodstock, continues to impress me every time I see it. But of the films actually nominated for Best Picture 1970, MASH is the best and most resonant, even as it’s sexual politics look increasingly antiquated. But to be fair, most of the politics of movies from the past will look antiquated the more time passes from them.
Director/Screenwriter George Seaton won two Oscars for writing – he had his hands in the screenplays for Miracle on 34th Street and The Country Girl. He was also nominated for his work on the script for The Song of Bernadette. Despite the award bone fides, and his 30+ year career in movies, Airport feels as shoddily written as it’s directed – probably moreso. The film is mostly built around characters talking at one another, instead of with one another, and is more interested than dumping information on the audience than actually bothering to be natural. In a stylized movie this approach might work, where it’s part of the whole aesthetic. But here, it’s failure. Surprisingly, Seaton received his fourth nod for screenwriting for this film.
Van Heflin made his final big-screen appearance here as the bomber and it’s fitting that his last scene, in his very last film, had him blown up by a bomb. That is the very definition of going out with a bang.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 That one is about the cult surrounding VW minibuses.
 Incidentally, I also bought that doc on DVD and I now watch it about once a year.
 See the movie Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled The ‘70s, which charts the same course for Italian crime films as The Spaghetti West did for the western.
 To be fair, in the one scene which requires her to act, she is very good.
 Incidentally, Hayes has an EGOT, having won an Emmy in 1953, Tony Awards in 1947 and 1958, and a Grammy in 1977.
 After all, for many men you get the same spark out of seeing sudden, unexpected nudity.
 In total, Seaton received five Oscar nods – four for screenwriting, the fifth for directing The Country Girl. In addition, he won the 1962 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.