2004: The Year in Movies

The Genius of Flight of the Phoenix
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2005 11:18 AM

2004: The Year in Movies

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I didn't think being invited to the join the Movie Club meant I had to subject myself to being called a "bully" and "slightly nuts" just because I try to write with force and enthusiasm. It's another example of critics who refuse to deal with an opposing thesis and resort to weak forms of dismissal. This is what's bad about movie writing that turns into a sophomoric sport. I have called critics out by name, but when I do so, I don't call them names. I'm after the vigorous defense of an idea. Sometimes that means going at certain ideological and professional suppositions that other critics take for granted. I guess that's when they feel personally attacked. They call it "bullying" or "slightly nuts" simply because their unexamined values or arrogant prejudices have been shown up.

Admittedly, I come from the outside of this middle-class profession. But I practice it as rigorously as I can, mindful of principles I was taught in j-school and life. It's irksome when colleagues who simply don't share those principles think my doing so is bullying or crazy.

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But you know what?  Like Sarris preferring a modern indie version of the French classics he used to love (he's earned the right and I respect his right), I'm still gonna speak my mind. Look out, scaredy cats, here comes a defense of John Moore and Flight of the Phoenix. Moore, my candidate for Peckinpah's retired jersey, remakes Robert Aldrich's 1965 film and matches it. Unlike the Christmas blockbusters, he demonstrates true craftsmanship with an eye for striking land- and skyscapes. Plus, he has a modern approach to apocalypse and community. Did any of you guys get it?

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It starts with Dennis Quaid saying to Miranda Otto: "You assume I'm one of those people who has hopes and dreams." He speaks wearily—as a pilot whose plane has just crashed in the Gobi desert to a desperate passenger; skeptic to optimist; man to woman; cliché to cliché. And yet, it's not normal movie dialogue. Quaid's dismissive front is actually a test of cynicism. As cargo pilot Frank Towns, Quaid isn't simply inspired to do the right thing in a chivalrous response to a beseeching female; facing extinction, he rejects his own rote, masculine solitude. Towns and the other passengers discover their will and unite to find a way to get the hell out of hell.

This new version of Aldrich's original, about a group of men whose plane crashes in a desert, is a true remake in the sense that it reworks the same themes, but with contemporary values. The story always seemed too "classical"—with its too-predictable outcome and lesson, a B movie inflated to A-picture status. But the vigorous young director John Moore is charged with revitalizing the story's essential meaning. He does more than bring surprise to its standard routines.

In Moore's previous film, Behind Enemy Lines, Owen Wilson's smart-mouthed pilot bucked the orders of his commander, played by Gene Hackman. It was a B movie looking for its place in our A-movie culture (where almost every film is an overhyped event). Critics mistook Moore's thrilling vision of warfare in Bosnia as irrelevant; missing the clear indication by Wilson's character that irreverence is the true mode of our modern-day soldier—an automatic youthful reflex before fulfilling duty. So instead of offering sanctimonious uplift, Moore mixed danger and impetuous behavior. Flight of the Phoenix is a similar action-movie cocktail. Moore spikes up the script's dire circumstance with an astonishing, hyperbolic crash sequence that gives way to a series of elegant desert vistas. Scene after scene is an intense widescreen study of existential man in his environment. 

If Moore's pace was a bit more geriatric, he might be acclaimed a genre master like Clint Eastwood. But Moore is a new-style visionary. Introductory shots of the plane gliding past a child flying a kite are an example of the spatial depth he brings to images that a Tony Scott or Michael Bay would make facile; it's the sign of a new imagination. Moore treats action sequences such as a desert standoff between the passengers and threatening nomads (it's blue-tinted as if day had suddenly become night, the moral universe turned upside-down) with the effrontery of video-game design. Yet he still respects naturalism. Moore's compositions don't look like video-game artifice; he has a genuine filmmaker's feel for aestheticized but realistic imagery. Moore plays with angles and light rather than distorting scale and dimension (à la Peter Jackson's unacceptable fantasias). And this translates to the characterizations that update action movie archetypes.

The familiar story isn't the point of Moore's dazzling compositions and hip-hop-hard tone; this movie is all about our current attitude toward heroism and pessimism. Moore uses the Aldrich plot to get at the hopes and dreams buried within our post-Desert Storm and now Desert Thunder cynicism.

Certain verities are apparent in this retelling of Flight of the Phoenix, but they are appreciable only if one still holds popular culture to its traditional use. That's Moore's point when character turns philosophical: "A man only needs one thing in life. Give him someone to love, give him something to hope for—or just something to do." Towns and the stranded passengers agree to reconstruct their plane, also recreating a microsociety of leaders and followers, egos and fears.

Critics can easily scoff at Moore's effrontery because he doesn't beg to be taken seriously. True to Aldrich's model (and especially to that transcendent B-movie artistry of Sam Peckinpah), Moore is a moviemaker who tells stories to show how people behave. The liveliest conflict happens between Towns and Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a Nazi-blond engineer who devises a plan to rebuild the plane and make himself leader. After a setback, Towns insists, "We're not garbage. We're people with families and lives to live. I don't want to die like this!" His sincerity isn't laughable. After all, Flight of the Phoenix is not realism; the conceit of showing human beings under stress admits a purpose beyond cheap thrills: It's a morality tale. Don't be snarky: You have to want them to survive.

Moore reveals a unique, contemporary sensibility: He's an apocalypse fantasist. The extraordinary effect of his hyperbolic style (like his unforgettable image in Behind Enemy Lines of Owen Wilson's plane circling the ruins of a religious statue) is to reconnect the awe of movie-making to the shock of modern warfare. Phoenix's Asian-Anywhere setting has obvious political associations, and the community of American, British, Asian, Muslim, Latino, and Australian survivors suggests an aggravated coalition. Once again, Moore has made a film in response to the hypothesis of war, rather than (like Aldrich or Peckinpah) an actual remembrance of war experience. That's movie-making that matters.

Armond White

David Edelstein isSlate's film critic. Scott Foundas is a film critic for LA Weekly. Christopher Kelly is a film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times. Charles Taylor is a film critic for Salon. Armond White is the film critic for the New York Press. Stephanie Zacharek is a film critic for Salon.