Directed By: George Seaton
Written By: George Seaton (based on the novel Airport by Arthur Hailey
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin
Airport is very obviously one film, trying to tell us it’s another. On one hand, it’s blizzards, and explosions, and hysterical people scrimmaging for a solution. But on the other hand, it’s a series of soap-opera inflected storylines, cobbled together seemingly out of nothing more than dramatic kosher.
When your heroes consist of an old lady stowaway, a loud mouth mechanic and Dean Martin, it’s little wonder as to which of these poles writer/director George Seaton is more comfortable leaning on. Airport deep down belongs to the genre that Flying High (or Airplane!), the most maniacal, out-of-its-mind film of its kind, so expertly spoofed a decade later. In fact it may be the originator of that genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because when it makes no bones about what it truly is, it achieves lift off.
It’s about an hour in when the plane officially departs for Rome and the film is given a shot to the heart, because this is when it becomes honest with itself. This is when it admits what it actually is, a disaster movie.
It’s an ensemble picture, loaded with colourful characters and underpinned with an air of excitement, but its downfall is when it attempts to sift through a multiplicity of melodramatic side stories, too transparent to be affecting and too many for any one to be properly capitalised on.
There’s the flight attendant bringing an unplanned baby aboard (Jacqueline Bisset), the sleazy, adulterous pilot, who actually has a heart of gold (Dean Martin), the airport manager who is firstly married to his job and secondly to his wife (Burt Lancaster), the airport customer relations agent who has a clear affection for the manager (Jean Sedberg), there’s the head of customs service who has his niece aboard the ill-fated flight and can do nothing but hope (Lloyd Nolan), and there’s the down on their luck Guerrero’s, the unstable Mr. Guerrero being the one who endangers the plane (Van Heflin).
The diamonds among this maze of damaged characters have to be Helen Hayes and George Kennedy as the stowaway and mechanic. The latter of the two plays the airport’s chief handyman, a hardnosed, rough-as-guts, straightshooter who never sugar coats the dire situation and who throws caution to the wind in his resolution of it, chewing and swirling his cigar like a crazed composer conducting the film’s bombastic score with his mouth. The former is a crafty, Frank Abignale type, who has a habit of finding herself on which ever flight she pleases. This time however she unwittingly finds herself on the troubled Boeing, and suddenly has her skill-set called upon as she becomes an unlikely figure in the flight’s resistance.
The disaster in question is twofold. First, there is the debilitating snowstorm which has forced the airport to close off certain runways, and secondly, the real trouble, comes from broke and mentally ill D.O Guerrero, who as a last ditch effort for the well being of his wife, brings a bomb on board the plane in pursuit of insurance money.
It’s in his crafting of these disaster elements that Seaton’s writing is at its most effective. The writer approaches with caution, carefully placing one foot in front of the other instead of racing to a contrived conclusion, covering his tracks as he patiently sets his story up, letting it unravel with as much naturalism as such a film warrants.
If only its personal stories were more refined. The film attempts to reach a poignant dramatic height, but its reach simply exceeds its grasp, its personal storylines painted with broad strokes and proving to be of little consequence as the film wears on.
There’s entertainment to be had in George Seaton’s Oscar nominee, but its better half, the “disaster movie”, is unfortunately forced to pick the limping legs of its melodramatic spouse off the turf. It’s certainly not without charm, but when your genre’s parody in Flying High! offers greater clarity in its personal storyline, you know you have left something to be desired.