"Memphis Belle" is what "Top Gun" might have looked like if it were drawn with crayons. It's boys in airplanes again -- this time a young American B-17 bomber crew in England during World War II -- but though the fighter jocks here are photogenic, and the story is designed to lead us through the elementary dramatic steps to inevitable triumph, this film substitutes true heroism for the macho posturing of the earlier one, and sentimentality for Cold War cynicism. And though you could argue that it's a trade-up, the benefits are only fractional.
What the film attempts to replicate is the feel of the bomber classics the American studios churned out in the '40s. It's a sort of New Age "Twelve O'Clock High." And it does a good job of Xeroxing the surface and substance of those earlier films; the replication is nearly exact, though why an exact duplication of a World War II bomber picture is desirable remains a question.
Why, in fact, is the question here. There are a number of fine young actors in the cast of "Memphis Belle," and the film provides them with a worthy showcase, but beyond producer David Puttnam's need to salute the bravery of these young men, and the sacrifices that Americans made to defend England from its German enemies, why this particular moment was chosen to tell this story is hard to fathom.
Perhaps Puttnam's history supplies the answer. Set in 1943, the picture is an exercise in the kind of symphonic uplift that the producer worked to such great effect in "Chariots of Fire," and perhaps what he was looking for was a vehicle for the same brand of celebratory magic. The movie, which tells the story of the crew of the Memphis Belle as it attempts to complete its last mission, is a cheering machine. Its sole purpose is to get us on our feet, and to this end it stoops to every hackneyed and predictable device available.
It manages to be fraudulently nostalgic to boot. The characters look as if they were lifted out of a Norman Rockwell lineup. This is a Brit's-eye view of American youth, and rampant with cliches. You'd think from "Memphis Belle" that all this country produced was earthy farm boys and wisecracking street toughs.
Part of the story focuses on an editor from Life, played by John Lithgow, who has arrived at the base to do a piece that, he hopes, will satisfy the appetite back home for American heroes. The base commander (David Strathairn) and most of the men, too, are far too busy being heroes and getting on with the business of flying their missions to participate. This is an odd aspect of the film; if this tapioca picture has a villain, it's Lithgow, and his job seems to closely parallel that of the filmmakers. Both are in the uplift business.
Director Michael Caton-Jones bestows a romantic aura on his characters while at the same time laboring to present them as average American kids. Their leader, Dennis (Matthew Modine), is a straight-up, all-American type -- a solitary figure in the Gary Cooper mode, soft-spoken, forthright and all business. His crew is made up of lesser mortals who occasionally allow their minds to wander into more prosaic matters, such as losing their virginity. Each has his own subplot. For example, the bombardier (Billy Zane, who plays the role with a little Errol Flynn mustache) claims to have attended medical school, when in fact his training was only minimal. Others, like Eric Stolz's Danny, the radio operator, stand out for their poetic sensitivity or, like D.B. Sweeney's Phil, for their morose intensity.
All of the actors acquit themselves admirably, especially Stolz, who has a star's low-key magnetism, and the jazz stylist Harry Connick Jr., who makes his acting debut here as the drawling rear gunner. But the roles are too generic for anything like real depth. The fight scenes are about what you'd expect; they're competently shot, but even when they deliver thrills, every scene, every passage, is familiar. We've seen it all before.
This may actually have been the filmmakers' intention. They wanted, it seems, to deliver a picture that conjures our memories of Hollywood's Golden Age. But when films like the ones "Memphis Belle" attempts to reproduce first came out, they served a patriotic purpose that this one cannot lay claim to. "Memphis Belle" can't boost our morale in the way those earlier films did. And without any real context, all the movie can do is give us a warm glow. Or in this case, a lukewarm one.
Memphis Belle, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.