by Kenny Hedges
There’s something to be said for lionizing airline pilots. What Captain Sullenberger did on the Hudson was a very nice, bold thing to do, and it rightfully got a cinematic treatment. 7500 deals with a fictional pilot, First Officer Toby Ellis (Joseph Gordon Levitt), flying from Berlin to Paris, when terrorists storm the plane. He’s no Sully.
America has a long history with loving men (always men, despite Earhart) who get them from New York to L.A. They were more cavalier than the Mad Men of the 60s, and I can still recall at young age being teased with the notion of the captain giving me a look inside the cockpit and pinning a set of wings on my lapel.
Then 9/11 hit, and the swarthy, well-traveled airline pilot left the public consciousness and the hero pilot took center stage (it should be noted that 9/11 occurred in between the typical gamut of stories about Southwest pilots straight out of Flight being busted in the cockpit). There were rumblings of this just years before, but in films like Air Force One and Executive Decision, the pilots left their seats in place of the hero.
7500 could have benefited from a Kurt Russell in the fuselage. The passengers on United 93, incited by “Let’s Roll” certainly felt that way, and they faced the same threat. Most airline thrillers generate tension by the wild card on the plane. Gordon-Levitt is fine, but Ellis is very by-the-book. Even after his wife-to-be is murdered early on after the hijackers demand access to the cockpit and he refuses, Ellis barely sheds a tear. This is meant to be a brutal reality, but it barely registers. It’s clear that writer-director Patrick Vollrath is aiming for a cold, claustrophobic realism, but he may have staked too much on a 19-year-old fear and a strict adherence to the nuts and bolts of piloting.
I’m sure that airline pilots lead exciting lives; I know little about it. This is possibly the one area of life in which John Travolta is more informed than me. Gordon-Levitt is not a fun-loving pilot, he’s a boy scout, on his way to the altar. One wonders if the German Vollrath didn’t intentionally create an inoffensive American – one who bothered to learn other languages – so as not to ruffle feathers. In any case, all the decisions render the character somewhat bloodless, and as a result the job does as well. Some filmmakers excel at making the finer points of a profession seem thoroughly interesting. David Mamet will often immerse audiences in jargon-heavy dialogue, to the point where you’re almost lost in it. You don’t walk away from 7500 feeling you heard anything more than you do during the overhead announcements.
Some of the tension works, and Vollrath works well in a confined space. The first half is infused at least with a sense that this could be the documentary to which it aspires. This is ejected in the second half in favour of the Good Terrorist. The Good Terrorist is very much like the Good Racist, they exist only in movies to give audiences an easy out when dealing with uncomfortable subject matter. In this case, it’s 18-year-old Vidat (Omid Memar), who managed to get in the cockpit and is still struggling with the terrorists’ agenda. Like Gordon-Levitt, Memar is quite good, but the situation has already devolved into B-movie territory, and Vidat is better suited to a season of 24. The quiet restraint and careful set up in the first hour, which occasionally flirted with real fear, never comes back. Scenes that are meant to be electric-charged feel procedural. And just because it looks classier, it doesn’t change how two-dimensional it is.
It’s never a good sign when your airline thriller may have felt just as eventful if the terrorists were taken out of the script.
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