Tuesday 5 May 2015

Final Flight (2013)

Director: David Jorgensen
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I've seen Final Flight a few times now and it's an interesting documentary that throws out some glorious moments late on but also misses a few opportunities. The subject is really the experience of flying, but it focuses in on a World War II veteran called Gene Fowler, who flew bombing raids into Germany in B-17s. An avid flyer from the age of fifteen, he signed up for the US Air Corps when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans decided to join the war. Yet, once it was over and he made it back safely from his 33rd and final flight, he never flew again. The film doesn't really cover why, but the blurb suggests it was due to the trauma of the raids. He appropriately quotes a description of bombing runs as 'hours and hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of sheer terror.' Maybe he'd experienced enough sheer terror, especially with flights like the one where he kept losing engines on the way back and eventually landed his Flying Fortress in the English Channel in the shadow of the White Cliffs of Dover.

But, while his last bombing run constituted his final flight for an amazing 65 years, this 91 year old pilot is given a new final flight, albeit as a passenger in the back of a two seater based at Deer Valley Airport outside Phoenix, AZ. Before that happens, David Jorgensen, who may have been the entire crew on this film, sets us up for it. He switches us between a variety of different angles to flying, thus keeping a focus on the activity itself rather than any one particular aspect of it. We hear from modern day civilian pilots based out of Deer Valley, like Tom Johnson and Mike Pfleger of the Warbird Division of the Experimental Aircraft Association, who have picked up a formation flying bug from the military folk and explain how it works. We hear from Fowler, talking about his war experience and thus bringing a much darker aspect to flying. We see a lot of supporting material: personal photos, maps and stock footage obtained from the National Archives. And eventually we get to where we've always been going: Fowler back in the sky.
All this has been interesting but it's around the ten minute mark when we start to move towards special. We start to notice the score building, we watch Fowler strap into the back of a plane and his words begin to move away from his down to Earth, no-nonsense personality to a more abstract form. He quotes John Magee's famous poem, High Flight, appropriately for a few reasons. Magee was another American pilot who served during the war; a year younger than Fowler, he joined the fight early and died in the air just three days after the US declared war on Japan, so almost exactly when Fowler signed up. He wrote High Flight when doing high altitude tests in a new Spitfire, an experimental military bird like those flown in this film, and he described his feelings as he put out his hand 'and touched the face of God'. Fowler has particular closeness to those words, describing them as exactly what he feels about flying. He obviously means that too, which adds poignancy to his decision not to do so again for 65 years.

Those words also feel highly appropriate as the film takes flight and we see something of why they were written. The choice to include at this point a clich├ęd song like Walking in the Air could easily have broken the film, especially as it's Stephen van Dyck singing rather than Aled Jones, but it works. It's appropriate and it takes away all the words, memories and explanations, replacing them entirely with visuals. All the footage here is capable, as we see landscapes and skyscapes and follow a set of planes dancing through them. Frankly though, all the editing between shots at this point could have been safely ditched to show only the footage of Fowler taken with a rear-facing camera. This entire picture can be boiled down as far as the expressions on his face as the plane in which he's riding rolls, spins and glides and he touches the face of God one more time on his new final flight. As strong as this film is, showing anything but that for the last five minutes still feels like a missed opportunity as, really, it's all that matters.

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