Airport (1970)

Dir. George Seaton. Starring Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Dean Martin

Dir. George Seaton. Starring Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Dean Martin

There’s one really good moment in this movie, and I think it’s sort of ironic that it’s such a good moment because in a better movie I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well. Guerrero (Van Heflin) has that suitcase bomb of his, and thanks to that one dinkus of a passenger (Peter Turgeon) who can’t keep his mouth shut, a fairly clever plan has been foiled and he now stands in the tail of the plane, holding his bomb, the entire plane at his mercy. To be perfectly honest, I kind of assumed that Vern (Martin) would be able to get Guerrero to put the bomb down and allow himself to be taken into custody. What Vern says to him is logical, and more than that slightly gutting. The life insurance policy you took out on yourself at the airport is no good, Vern tells him, and your suicide won’t alleviate your wife’s (Maureen Stapleton) financial suffering. More importantly, the dramatic choices that Airport makes through the first, oh, ninety minutes and change of the film tend to fizzle out, or at least remain unsolved because there’s a hope that it’ll create more dramatic tension. The longer it takes for things to go unsolved, though, the less urgent they feel. So when Guerrero runs into the bathroom, Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset) starts pounding on the door, and then there’s a BANG and there’s a big hole in the airplane and everyone’s freaking out and it looks like Gwen might get sucked out of the plane…I mean, that worked on me. It worked on me because something actually happened, and the movie was so turgid up to that point that I had sort of given up hope that anything would happen.

In Airport, the trouble is that there’s simply too much going on to care about. There’s a point where a certain level of synchrony or connection is engaging and fun, and take the connection even a fraction of an inch beyond that point and the story scuffles. Mel (Lancaster) and Vern have an antagonistic relationship with one another which is amplified by the fact that they are related by marriage; Vern is married to Mel’s sister, who is perfectly aware of how often her pilot husband is stepping out with flight attendants and other women she’ll never meet. I think this is effective. Vern takes shots at Mel, who is already not the most popular guy with the board of directors at the airport anyway, and Mel gets to keep the moral high ground because Vern’s mistreating his sister and all three of them know it. Gwen tells Vern that he’s gotten her pregnant, and this is the miscalculation. There is a lot of Jacqueline Bisset on the floor in the back half of this movie, and I think it would be very possible—likely, even!—that we could care about her even if she weren’t supposed to be carrying Dean Martin’s illegitimate child. Usually seeing someone blown up will do the trick. And I think we’d also get the sense that Vern is sort of a heel just by knowing that he cheats on his wife and that he opposes Mel, who at least professionally is a rock of good sense at this shortsighted airport.

This is probably the most outrageous (and for what it’s worth, sort of predictably defensible) decision that the movie makes to stir up some unnecessary drama when there’s already enough to be getting on with. Patroni (George Kennedy) is keepin’ it 100 this whole movie and it seems weirdly grating for everyone else? He just doesn’t feel like the right character for other people to express frustration with, no matter how loud he is. There is an incredible amount of Ada Quonsett, Stowaway (Hayes) business, and the role she plays in the film is comic relief before the movie requires it or a very briefly used cog in a plan that fails almost on arrival. But the version of this overreach which I find most clumsy is the burgeoning relationship between Mel and Tanya (Jean Seberg) which is presented as the natural offshoot as opposed to a possible cause of the growing rift between Mel and his wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter). If this movie were made up entirely of the perspective of people on the ground, excising our view of the pyrotechnics of D.O. Guerrero or the suffering of Gwen Meighen, then I think I could understand what this is doing here. But because we are cutting between a 707 and the ground, and that there are dramas playing out in every part of the plane, and that there are somehow even more dramas going on inside the airport and out on the runways, this subplot feels like an afterthought because it kind of has to be an afterthought. Seberg is not so bad at sighing in Lancaster’s direction, he’s more than adequate at playing a man exhausted with henpecking, and Wynter has plenty of frostiness to snap in Lancaster’s direction. But what does it add to the movie that there might be some romance between a middle-aged man and his hot, mothering secretary? Perhaps we’re learning something about screenwriters and movie executives, but there’s not even time to care about this sublimated romance, let alone show them do much about it. At the end of the movie, the two of them drive off together, ostensibly for breakfast, but in practice to relive a particular middle-aged fantasy so commonplace that it literally happened to Don Draper. 

Inevitably, Airport is probably most interesting as a companion piece as opposed to the focus of deeper thought on its own terms, which is probably unfair. I haven’t seen the sequels to this movie, but I have of course seen Airplane!, as well as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, which are both more direct and less insulting offshoots. (I will say this for Airport: it’s in much better shape as a companion piece for a superior spoof in Airplane! than Fail-Safe is as a companion piece for a superior satire in Dr. Strangelove. Airport is as overstuffed as the overhead storage in winter, but at least it doesn’t accidentally make the most hawkish policies of the Cold War look like a rational idea over the course of the film.) The lesson that both Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno take from Airport is that space is everything. What’s missing from Airport is something that both of its descendants have over and over again, and that’s an obstacle course. In Poseidon Adventure, a small group has to conquer some weird upside-down aspect of the ship to make it out, like it’s the world’s angriest corn maze. In Towering Inferno, multiple small groups bounce around a burning building. A few don’t make it out, but whether it’s O.J. Simpson saving a cat, Paul Newman taking some busted metal down a story, or Susan Blakely taking a windy ride in a seat from one building to the next, there’s some distance to travel, some weird path to follow. That’s the stress in the picture, and the more of it we get—for it’s not so hard to imagine what an unpleasant series of steps one must take to avoid the greatest unpleasantness—the more effective it is. 

Airport is hamstrung here, because while I think we could all have turned our brains off for a while and thought about passengers trying to maneuver around the plane to parachute out or something, the space itself is just wrong. Too many people, too little space. There’s a reason why it’s always a haunted mansion and never a haunted broom closet, which is essentially what the filmmakers have left themselves. This movie was at its best when everything that’s all but nailed down in that cabin gets sucked out of the plane, when the boom of a homemade bomb fills our ears. Tawdry fades; explosions live forever. 

On the other hand, Airport is compares a little more favorably on the subject of infrastructure (sounds like the first half of the ‘70s was one big Infrastructure Week) with its compeers. Irresponsible leadership and pie-eyed craftsmen are in their own ways the villains of the subsequent films in this genre. Think of William Holden’s builder who cuts corners to save money, or the way the captain of the Poseidon, played by Leslie Nielsen, objects to the way he’s being browbeaten into piloting and weighing his ship. Even a well-meaning person like Newman’s architect in Inferno, who basically designs this building and bails on the making of it, is blamed by Steve McQueen’s fire chief for his role in creating the world’s tallest fire hazard. In Airport, people trying to make a fast buck or appease some idly wealthy individuals in a nearby housing development are the baddies. A scene which I could have had twice as much of features Ackerman (Larry Gates), the chief commissioner of the airport, threatening Mel with dismissal if he won’t accede to the board’s cost-cutting demands which would, naturally, make a less safe airport. Mel gives what has to be the most impassioned speech I’ve ever heard about going in the opposite direction, spending money to modernize the airport and make it significantly safer for the pilots and passengers alike. It hearkens back to movies of an earlier time, those mid-Depression and post-Depression films which found the richest members of the story and found them the villains of the piece. What’s the difference between Ackerman or Duncan and Gatewood of Stagecoach, in the end? The concerns have evolved and become more sophisticated—Gatewood is an old-fashioned criminal guilty of embezzlement, where Ackerman is no crook but is loose with the public good—but the idea is essentially the same. If we are going to take Airport seriously as a drama as opposed to a spectacle, a reading of the film really needs to focus there. 

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