I’ve seen a lot of these in the last year or so. First there was The Greatest Game Ever Played, which was not the greatest movie ever made; it seemed more interested in CGI scoreboards than it was in golf, and what golf means to people. Then there was End of the Spear, which was a vast improvement, recognizing and finding the core of a story that never grows stale in the retelling. Then Glory Road tried to convince us that the social significance of a story is more compelling than the story itself. More recently, Invincible told the underdog’s tale better than any movie since Rocky (what is it about Philadelphia?); and Gridiron Gang overcame weak performances on the strength of a story that’s just doggone compelling.
All of these films—not just Flyboys—take historical facts and fictionalize them to suit the feature film format. None of them are documentaries; all tell the truth, and tell it a bit slant, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson. The best of them, though, do so in the service of the essence of the story, the broader truth if not the literal one. The less successful efforts get lost in the weeds of secondary issues.
So what is Flyboy’s primary weed?
It’s the fact that the story’s center gets misplaced. At the most general level, it’s the tale of young American men who beat their countrymen to the punch by enlisting with the nascent French air corps better than a year before America enters the war. They are trained to take to the skies, to fly out to almost certain death in aerial combat against better trained and better equipped German pilots. And the interest of the story, according to the filmmakers themselves, comes from the observation that the pilots were the last of a dying breed, “Knights of the Air,” as it were. “World War I was the last time there was a direct connection between combatants in a war,” says Executive Producer Philip Goldfarb. “You were close enough to see the other individual’s face while fighting and flying. There are stories about firing a weapon and the blood of your enemy would literally end up on your windshield and face. It was graphic, but it also gave an intimacy and personal connection that never existed again.” Adds actor James Franco, who portrays the film’s central character, “War had always been face-to-face, man-to-man. The idea was to be knights of the skies; a duel; the last kind of duel, in effect, since modern weapons have taken all that away.”
Now, even if one buys into such a romanticized vision of war and the history of war, the fact is that Flyboys never really gets around to telling that story. What it does get around to is an awful lot of repetitive air battles and sketchy, perfunctory character development; and when the inevitable (and predictable) dueling finally takes place, it’s hard not to scream, “What took you so long?” But even then, the central conflict never carries much moral weight. Do these young men really believe in much of anything besides mere survival?
There may indeed have been a time when there was a certain nobility attached to the conduct of war; and many films have convinced us of that fact: Gallipoli, Glory, Braveheart, Courage Under Fire, even. But we won’t be adding Flyboys to that list any time soon.