Halfway through the new 32-minute film "Flyers," which opens today at the Air and Space Museum, there's a spectacular aerial maneuver involving a wing walker: The stunt man falls from a biplane only to be rescued by a crusty flyer who swoops alongside and provides a strut the stunt man can grab to end his fall.
All this looks terribly impressive up there on the 50-by-75-foot IMAX screen, what with the plummeting body and biplanes rolling and diving about and the spectacular scenery of the Grand Canyon rushing closer every second.
And in fact, the sequence was even more spectacular than it appears in the film. The plan called for stunt man Kevin Donnelly to be captured by a plane slowed by three drogue chutes, which were to be jettisoned so the pilot could pull out of the dive. The chutes wouldn't release, and pickup pilot Art Scholl managed to clear a canyon ridge by just 10 feet.
This wonderful testing of limits that's inherent in flying is exactly what "Flyers" attempts to dramatize. But as is often the case with celluloid heroes, real life seems infinitely more fascinating. One wonders why we don't see this spectacular bit of aviation skill revealed in the movie, the first dramatic film ever shot in the overwhelming, finely detailed IMAX process. IMAX uses a film format six times as large as the standard 35mm frame. It creates a startling sense of presence that has drawn 10 million viewers to the films "Living Planet" and "To Fly" since the Air and Space Museum opened in 1976. "Flyers" was made by the creators of the previous two films and underwritten by Conoco.
But "Flyers" turns out to be an almost perfect example of why it's so difficult to create fictional drama on a screen so large. Every shot that drags too long, every bad bit of acting, every weak line of dialogue gets amplified to an oppressive degree. What's landed at the museum is the most gigantic piece of hokum to descend on Washington since the Checkers speech.
The story, if we can call it that, is about a young pilot who wants to follow in the wings of an ace aviator named Kyle Murphy. The film opens with Murphy crash landing his Corsair on a carrier during World War II. Flash foward to a junked Corsair being hauled by Murphy and young Tim Johnson through Glacier National Park. The vistas of the park are far more interesting than the plane or the actors, who rebuild the plane in a hangar so Johnson can recreate the landing for a film being shot by a group of silly Frenchmen.
If this isn't silly enough, the pair spends a seemingly terminal amount of time in the hangar engaging in what pilots call hangar flying, which simply means talking about flying. This cinematic ennui is occasionally interrupted by some stunt flying in France, the wing-walking sequence, a pair of Air Force F-15 Eagles and a bit of gliding. At one point, the nondynamic duo go for a night flight over Hoover Dam in a Ford Tri-Motor and talk about the personal side of flying, even managing to make the brilliant aviation writer Antoine de Saint-Exupe'ry sound like a wimp. Needless to say, Johnson pulls off the landing, and the film ends happily with a freeze frame of Murphy and Johnson together.
At one point, Murphy says something to the effect of "the sky never forgives." Neither should the audience. Fortunately, once the film is over, it's possible to wander around the Air and Space Museum and get the sense that flying is a challenge and that flyers can be intersting people. You'd never guess it from the movie.