At the Movies, I Can Only Surrender So Much

By Scott Spangler on November 12th, 2012

When a single trip to the bargain matinee equals my monthly Netflix subscription, for most movies my frugality partners with patience and we add the title to our queue. On a 1997 date night, my wife and I saw Air Force One, and she didn’t really enjoy dinner afterwards because I was still ranting about its impossibilities.

Since then, she’s gotten pretty good at gauging my interest in seeing movies either about aviation or that employ it in the story line. A fan of Denzel Washington, she had hopes for his new film, Flight. And then the trailer showed a MD-something-or-other flying inverted at low level and its and its blended right wingtip slicing through the statue on top of some dome. She looked at me, didn’t say a word, and then reached for her laptop.

When it comes to movies, I get it. Unrealistic, often impossible action makes the film more exciting, to those who don’t know any better. Perhaps I’m overly anal, I can only surrender only so much of my disbelief. And I wonder what affect such impossible action has on people with a  real interest in flight? And how do they compare to old movies that portrayed flying more honestly and realistically?

Twelve O’clock High is arguably the best, most realistic, and honest aviation film ever made. (And if you want the rest of the story, read Hollywood Pilot, by Paul Mantz, who bought the surplus B-17s used in the movie, choreographed the flying, and was the single pilot of the Flying Fortress that took out the tent, which was supposed to have a break-away pole, in the belly landing scene.) Second is Hells Angels by Howard Hughes.

On the civilian side, the High and the Mighty, based on Ernie Gann’s novel gets real. It amps up the emotional problems of the crew of a trans-Pacific flight, but not the mechanical. After a thorough search of the odd corners of memory, I don’t find any really good GA films, except maybe The Other Side of the Mountain, about the paraplegic skier, Jill Kinmont. Beau Bridges played her love interest, and he landed his Citabria on the rural road that passed the family homestead in Bishop, California.

clip_image001The point, is that viewers who are aspiring pilots can more easily trade places with (or replace) an on-screen avatar when aviation environment is at least believable, if not true to life. Some may say that aviation reality won’t sell today, but until the death of its director, producers were working on Top Gun II, the sequel to what may have been the last honest aviation film made with real airplanes.

If I’m going to surrender my hold on aviation reality, I want to be able to fully enjoy the show, not annoy my wife with an endless list of impossibilities, which is why I’m really looking forward to the 2013 direct-to-DVD release of Planes, by Disney Pixar.

Just out of curiosity, what’s your favorite aviation movie? –Scott Spangler, Editor


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22 Responses to “At the Movies, I Can Only Surrender So Much”

  1. Douglas Manuel Says:

    This is a pathetic excuse for an aviation movie. If I had not paid $15 to see it, I would have walked out. I won’t go into the numerous errors in the flight sequence, but I was embarrassed that Denzel would allow this over the top portrayal of a commercial pilot. This movie is nothing more than a glorified ad for AA or other addiction modification programs (in my opinion). It appears they (thinly) pulled information from the Alaska Air accident blamed on the Jackscrew.

  2. Jack Hodgson Says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the GA movie “Always”.

  3. Tim Busch Says:

    High Road to China.

  4. David Says:

    The Great Waldo Pepper, The Bridges at Toko Ri and Always. Also Toward the Unknown, Strategic Air Command and Tora Tora Tora.

  5. @williamAirways Says:

    Folks, take it easy. This movie wasn’t about aviation. Nor was it about an airline. Nor was it about an airline pilot’s career. It was about the tragic life of an alcoholic drug addict.

  6. Douglas Manuel Says:

    William is right. I was thrown off by the television trailers and movie title. Perhaps they thought “Flight” would be a bigger draw than a movie called “Drunk”.

  7. Frankav8tor Says:

    “No Highway In The Sky” produced in 1951 in England starring James Stewart. This movie is unique in that it was about an British airliner that suffered catastrophic failure due to structural fatigue. This was before the De Havilland Comet crashes in 1953, also due to structural fatigue. The really corny connection is that the airplane in the movie was called a Reindeer…and of course, Comet was the name of one of Santa’s reindeers. A coincidence?

    Additionally, it is the only movie where a vibration engineer is the star.

  8. Larry Says:

    Scott, since you know your rants annoy your wife enough to spoil her dinner after watching a movie featuring incredulous aviation-related material, why not show her a little respect and shut the h**l up? When writing an article on the subject, it’s about expressing your views and stimulating conversation, which is fine. When going on about it ad nauseum to a spouse or a date to the point that she needs to don earplugs and stop eating, it’s called being obnoxious. What you saw is a movie, Scott. A small percentage of film makers do it better than others, but sadly, Hollywood is well-known for inaccurate portrayals of mostly any subject to those who consider themselves technically informed. Maybe your lady would have generally enjoyed the movie and the work of its starring actor whom she admires, but naturally you could not let that happen. Next time give her a break, check your ego at the door and move on. The behavior you describe is not funny nor something to be proud of. I hope you had at least enough sense to remain quiet as a audience member for the sake of the other viewers. Or did you?

  9. tom Hammer Says:


  10. Don Weber Says:

    “The Flight of the Phoenix.”

  11. David Says:

    Midway? Should have been Noway!

  12. Robert Mark Says:

    Larry … ouch. Maybe we’re all taking this movie thing a bit too seriously.

    I think Scott mentioned it in the story, but Flight is actually based on the facts of the Alaska Airlines crash out over the Pacific in early 2000.

    Of course the discussions between Mr. Spangler and his wife … I think I’m gonna stay way clear of that.


  13. Jeff Says:


  14. Mac Says:

    Thanks for the heads-up. Saved me $.
    Dam Busters. 633 Squadron. Battle of Britain. Strategic Air Command.
    (Enjoyed Patriot Denzel in other films…)

  15. Scott Spangler Says:

    A lot of great movies mentioned here by a lot of passionate viewers. I’ve seen most of them, but it’s been awhile. I’m adding them to my Netflix cue.

    Larry, don’t worry. I really only abused my wife with the one rant, when we saw Air Force One. Now I only address Hollywood’s aviation liberties in response to her questions.

    You see, my wife has proofed just about every word I’ve written for nearly two decades, and that includes this post. She considers it a pretty good on-the-job aviation educations. She also has a sensitive BS meter and it not shy about anything that doesn’t sound right.

    When necessary, she questions my work with the same are-you-sure-and-can-you-prove-it attitude that she directs at flimmakers. But she’s also much better at overlooking a film’s liberties than I am, so she watches what she wants, just as I do. She takes much greater delight in the fact that I’m addicted to romatic comedies and other chick flicks.

  16. Art Says:

    This article and numerous responses really gave me a chuckle to start my day with. Thanks to all of you. I think I’m going to fill my Netflix queue up with some of these old flicks.

  17. David Dixen Says:

    I loved “Air Force One”. I exercise on a Nordic Track when watcing movies. I laughed more often than I groaned and the music kept me moving. I especially liked it when the military pilot corrected his flight number to Marine One.

  18. Brian Lusk Says:

    Like your wife, my wife hates me commenting on movie and television shows. As to a movie that is heartbrakingly authentic, United 93 is the best, but it is too hard to watch for any of us in the industry who lived through 9/11. High and the Mighty is a top choice of mine, and don’t forget Gann’s earlier movie Island in the Sky. My guilty pleasure is the original Airport, and I love Airplane because it makes fun of all the inaccuracies of the movies.

  19. Mark C Says:

    OK, I’m about to out-anal you but the correct word is effect, not affect.

    I hate unrealistic films and TV shows, the net result being that I spend very little time watching any. As a retired volunteer firefighter, I can’t watch any of the shows based on that profession, although I did catch a couple episodes of Chicago Fire recently and they get high marks for authenticity – far from perfect, but very good. As a pilot, well, I just try not to watch anything with an airplane in it, excepting Flying Wild Alaska and Ice Pilots.

  20. Steven Rudin Says:

    My favorite Aviation movie is “Airplane” because is spoofs so many of those those so-called serious movies which are so unrealistic. It is actually directly based on a movie called “Zero Hour” made in 1957. Zero Hour is meant to be a serous movie, but most of it is absurd. On youtube someone actually put scenes of the two movies side by side, and much of the dialogue is the same.

  21. Rexjet Says:

    Island in the sky,, Flying leathernecks, High and the Mighty

  22. jim denike Says:

    actually, one of the most realistic pics ever made, at least the actual flying scenes, was the Battle of Britain. The view from a side gunner’s port watching a fighter slides by within a fraction of a second was much closer to reality than most of the Hollywood-ized versions where the gunner has 8-10 seconds to make his shot.

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