Flyboys (review)

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Learning to Fly

Oh, those rickety biplanes, all canvas and wood and held together by spit and a prayer, come taxiing out of the early morning fog and there’s the sad tin whistle music and the eager young men jumping to get up in the air and get themselves killed, and I’m a basket case from the get-go, all tears and sobby and having just the best time I can have at the movies: I. Am. Moved. Just the idea of the Great War, the build-in tragedy and pathos of too many young lives chewed up by the sudden and unexpected new horrors of mechanized warfare — you’ve got me at hello when you set a movie here, which hasn’t been done in years by Hollywood. (I lost it right from the beginning of the French film Joyeux Noël earlier this year, which is about the Christmas truce of 1914 that may have actually made the war worse.)

I know I’m being manipulated just a bit by the planes coming out of the fog and the swelling music and James Franco looking heroic and handsome in his leather flight jacket and all — Flyboys is from producer Dean Devlin, who was behind movies like Independence Day and The Patriot, movies not known for their subtlety. But there’s only a little bit of that ol’ Hollywood manipulation, just enough so that the movie wraps itself around your heart and brews a stew that’s stirring and affecting. Flyboys does not squander what instant drama it is handed in its premise: the short careers of the world’s first fighter pilots in the skies over France. By keeping just this side of the line, assuming that you’re smart enough that you don’t need to be bashed over the head, that a tap on the shoulder will be enough, Flyboys invokes that old-fashioned Hollywood magic, the kind that sweeps you up and away. And I use the phrase “old-fashioned Hollywood” in the very best way, like you feel like you’ve been flipping around the TV in the middle of the night and came across some great old movie you’d never even heard of before, and how could you not since it’s so, you know, classic? You almost expect it to be in black-and-white.

And maybe that’s not surprising, since among the handful of screenwriters is David S. Ward, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sting. This ain’t Michael Bay at work here, and the cast isn’t here because they look good on the screen — which isn’t to say that they don’t — but because they can bring a sense of character and importance that far too many of the young actors onscreen today can’t. There’s Franco’s (Annapolis, Tristan & Isolde) Texas cowboy, volunteering to fly for the French before the U.S. joined the war — he’s running from an arrest warrant back in Texas on a bullshit charge; my esteem for Franco goes up with every film he makes: he’s got that indefinable It that makes a movie star. Ditto costar Martin Henderson, who was in the The Ring and Bride & Prejudice and a couple of other silly things but deserves to be better known: he’s the one flying ace left when Franco and his American compatriots (played by an unknown team of appealing young actors) arrive in France, and Henderson makes him a bitter and intriguing presence.

It’s not that there’s anything drastically revelatory here: you know what to expect, and you get it, done as well as Hollywood ever gets it. These fresh-faced boys arrive all enthusiastic into the middle of the what would be the most horrible war ever without the benefit of our hindsight, and they learn to fly — become among the first people ever to learn to fly, actually, in those tiny pathetic machines with no instruments — and learn to live with their own shocked selves as the realities of this new way of waging war hit them in the face. And Franco falls in love with a pretty French girl, of course, and there’s lots of exciting air battles that make you understand why George Lucas used footage of WWI dogfights as the template for those in Star Wars, and pilots die in heroic ways, and sometimes in stupid ways.

But it’s all pulled together in that magical movie way that gets you caught up and makes you care and leaves you feeling, weirdly enough, somehow like a better person for having shared in this based-on-reality true story. Flyboys is the kind of movie that, when Hollywood gets it right, it does best — this is a grand yarn of adventure and catastrophe, of optimistic dreams settling into shattered certainty: it’s big and emotional and sentimental without being sappy, luscious with beautiful locations shot to make you fall in love with them, and with the sweetness of romance in which a passionate kiss constitutes the big sex scene. It’s an instant new classic in my own little pantheon of favorite films. I love love love this movie. And I wanted to say “Use the Force, Franco” only once, I swear.

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Thu, Sep 21, 2006 6:39pm

I have lost any respect I might have ever had for you. This is the worst movie of the year by a substantial margin.

Thu, Sep 21, 2006 10:40pm

Ohmigod, you’re soooo right! How could I have been so misled?! This IS the absolute worst movie of the year by a substantial margin! Wow! Thanks for removing the blinders from my eyes! Your argument is irrefutable! How could I not have seen the truth? Forgive me, please…

Fri, Sep 22, 2006 10:31am

Well, heck, I’d better not go see it then!

(Just kidding.)

Actually, the trailer grabbed me like crazy, and I was glad to see you so enthused … but what’s the deal with the critical pile-on? A 34% Tomato-meter? Man, that’s bad. Not as bad as All The King’s Men, but pretty bad.

So I’m curious if you have any sense of what’s cheesing all these other critics off about this movie. Is it preconceived notions? Clunky dialogue? Anything dealing with World War I?

I mean, pore kwah, man?

Fri, Sep 22, 2006 12:03pm

I really have no idea what these other critics are so upset about.

Waldo Jaquith
Fri, Sep 22, 2006 9:48pm

Well, congratulations — the producers are so desperate for a quote that they actually show a quote from you in the commercial. They also quote from some random L.A. radio station, apparently unable to find anyone anybody’s ever heard of to say anything nice about the movie.

Fri, Sep 22, 2006 10:48pm

I just got back from seeing this– what a horrible, horrible movie that was. A stale re-run of Top Gun with biplanes. No heart. No real purpose for being.

I find your review hard to stomach, having actually witnessed this dud in person. Did the producers get to you or something?

Sat, Sep 23, 2006 2:35pm


As a close to 10 year reader, I have to wonder:
are you going soft? Perhaps you’ve been too happy in your personal life? (really I’m glad for you, but it may be hurting the writing)

First you like a Will Ferrell movie, now you like a male bonding film that is roundly panned elsewhere. Where is the heartless bitch who became a god to us geeks?

If you give a positive review to Veggie Tales, I’ll be certain you’ve been podded.

Sun, Sep 24, 2006 1:16pm

I think the Flick Philospher is absolutely correct.

I LOVED this movie, and I hate anything contrived. It is what it is, an old fashioned, unironic war yarn with a touching love story, good acting, and great presence by the male leads. I thought Franco had the presence of a young Gary Cooper.

I also liked the exposition, the information about the planes, the funky, Rube Goldberg-style “training exercises.” The aerial dogfights made me hold my breath, and the camera shot of the planes coming out of the fog in the early morning was stunning.

I predict that within ten years, this will be considered one of the most initially underrated films of all time. I think for some reason the timing is off, maybe its Iraq War/Bush overload or something.

And anyone who disputes that, check out the lukewarm reviews and attendance at “Office Space” — now recognized as a cult classic.

The Flick Philospher nails it again.

(P.S. diverging here for a bit, I suffered through “The Breakup” and agreed that I would rather have left the boring leads and gone off on a narrative arc featuring Judy Davis’ art gallery owner, or the longhaired assistant/MAC guy from TV.


Mon, Sep 25, 2006 12:51am

“Did the producers get to you or something?”

Yup, that’s it. The producers got to me. If only you guys could see the stuff they’ve been bribing me with, it’s fuckin’ amazing, lemme tell ya. Well, actually, I can’t tell you, because then I’d have to kill you, but I can promise that you have never seen cool shit like the cool shit that critics get who pretend to like movies that they really can’t stand. It TOTALLY makes blowing any kind of reputation for straight shooting you might have developed over the better part of a decade completely worthwhile. I mean, there’s NO comparison. On the one hand, you’ve got nonsense crap like integrity and honesty and garbage like that, and on the other hand, you’ve got frakking fantastic prezzies like you cannot imagine. Like, okay, I’m not gonna give anything away, but imagine a life filled with super top-secret toys developed by government scientists — say, oh, totally hypothetically, sports cars that run on water and were reversed-engineered from crashed UFOs that are held back from the general public not just because of the stranglehold the oil companies have over every elected official and also because then the government would have to acknowledge the existence of crashed UFOs on Earth, but mostly because they need to reserve this stuff for the critics who have been gotten to.

But that’s just an example. It’s like a thousand times cooler than that.

Also, George Clooney is now at my beck and call 24/7, and he has to do whatever I demand of him, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Cuz Hollywood needed a good quote on an ad for *Flyboys.*

My life as a film critic who’s been gotten to by Hollywood producers is so awesome. I am like the coolest person ever.

Mon, Sep 25, 2006 1:54am

Well, there you go. Clearly all this ill-gotten largesse has made you too happy. I recommend a Michael Bay filmfest – all the Hollywood moolah in the world won’t be able to keep you from bursting out in sarcasm and snark.

John C. La Rue, Jr.
John C. La Rue, Jr.
Mon, Sep 25, 2006 11:56pm

As a long time WWI aviation buff, I could knock this movie 40 different ways so far as accuracy is concerned, but it’s great fun nevertheless. Those who complain about how cliched the movie is forgot the oldest war movie cliche of all, the two-men-in-love-with-the-same-girl routine.

Oh, Flyboys is uneven, all right, and as I said, very inaccurate in the details, but overall I would say it was worth the price of admission. The combat scenes are gloriously exciting, and there is an unexpectedly moving moment when the hero takes his girl friend for a plane ride.

Tue, Sep 26, 2006 6:46pm

I’m sorry, but the movie is garbage. Praising it for being ‘unironic’ and ‘old-fashioned’ is code for saying ‘I want an escapist war movie where the good guys and bad guys are clearly drawn, where nothing bad really happens to everyone and where the fighting is a colorful video game’. You don’t want a film experience, you want a security blanket of a movie to caress your wartime insecurities. The acting is _not_ good. The writing is not good. The direction is not good. This movie was made for crass cheap thrills and y’all have fallen for it hook, line, etc.

Tue, Sep 26, 2006 10:17pm

“You don’t want a film experience, you want a security blanket of a movie to caress your wartime insecurities.”

Thanks for the psychoanalysis. You just saved me a shrink bill for September. You rock, dude.

Wed, Sep 27, 2006 3:19pm

This film was great. It has all the great elements of the classic war films without all the crap that they all seem to have in them now.

Firstly, it had good action without any “come on that is so impossible” moments that seem to pop up every couple minutes in most new action movies. Sure there are some historical in-acuracies, but the story line remains plausible.

Secondly, it didn’t really on constant action or special effects to keep your interest. There was a decent story.

Thirdly, the love story didn’t distract from the action, and it kept from straying into immorality. Usually this type of film (action/war) includes a romance story so they can put some sex into it, for the male target audience. It was refreshing to see one without.

The best part of this movie was that I would take just about anyone to see it. Well the violence, though not bad by todays standards, was a little graphic for pre-teens, everything else about the movie was clean. No sex, no offensive language.

This is basically a classic 50’s war movie, with better action sequences due to todays technology. Exactly what I was hoping for.

Wed, Sep 27, 2006 6:54pm

I’m curious to know what “the crap they all seem to have in them now” is. Realism? Grittiness? Appropriate blood and violence?

The movie did have a ‘come on that is impossible moment’ when Franco chops the guy’s hand off, which was literally a laugh-out-loud moment for me. There was no decent story, just some filler to stick in between dogfights.

I would consider anyone who seriously likes this movie to be emotionally stunted or crippled in some way.

Wed, Sep 27, 2006 7:05pm

My apologies for any hurt feelings, but words cannot describe how much I hate this movie. Like in that classic Roger Ebert way, I ‘hated hated hated’ this movie, and I think it’s deeply offensive in a time of war as well.

Thu, Sep 28, 2006 12:15pm

Fascinating the way a simple genre war movie can evoke such vitriol.

Rather than opine on the relative emotional development of those who disagree, why can’t a detractor just accept that some enjoy a film he “hates, hates, hates.”

Fri, Sep 29, 2006 2:35am

I’m a history buff and I thought Flyboys was a darn good period movie (despite the inaccuracies that come standard with any hollywood production). It was pure like movies used to be, rather than the oversexualized, brainless and disturbing drivel (e.g. this movie’s current competitor, Jackass the movie) that typifies hollywood today.

Look, I’m Canadian, and like the poster above, I chalk up this film’s poor critical showing to the American public’s current psychosis over the Iraq war (just like post-Vietnam, when war movies and toys suddenly became taboo in North America). Folks in the U.S., if you can’t mentally handle a war, stop starting so many…

Fri, Sep 29, 2006 7:05am

Moe, I’ll answer your question. It’s not just that the movie is bad. I like plenty of bad movies (my particular fetish is monster movies from the 1950s). It’s the unabashed love that really grates on my nerves, and because I really am offended by the escapism that this movie offers in this current time of war that the country is engaged in. Rather than engage a single issue of living in wartime, coping with the stresses and horrors, this movie presents a fantasy world of escapism where war is fun, thrilling, romantic, and makes you a better person and nobody really gets hurt because it’s PG-13. In other words, the movie is full of dangerous lies, the kind of lies which lead to people being willing to start more wars. A person who not just accepts the movies, with its flaws, as flawed entertainment is one thing, but a person who swallows it whole because of whatever cognitive dissonance they might have between their inner fantasy worlds and the outer real world really bugs the hell out of me.

“Pure like movies used to be” is code for when censorship and dominant ideologies restricted filmmakers from being honest and frank about the real world. War is ugly and war movies have no business being ‘pure’.

Fri, Sep 29, 2006 8:44am

“Rather than engage a single issue of living in wartime, coping with the stresses and horrors, this movie presents a fantasy world of escapism where war is fun, thrilling, romantic, and makes you a better person and nobody really gets hurt because it’s PG-13.”

Wow. You thought the film showed war as fun and romantic? Perhaps that says more about you than it does about the film.

“A person who not just accepts the movies, with its flaws, as flawed entertainment is one thing, but a person who swallows it whole because of whatever cognitive dissonance they might have between their inner fantasy worlds and the outer real world really bugs the hell out of me.”

That’s a far bigger issue than concerns merely this movie, or any movie. Are we supposed to hate hate hate *The Matrix,* then, because it inspired a couple of disturbed teenagers to go on a murder spree? Should we hate hate hate the Bible because of all the evil that has been done in its name?

Fri, Sep 29, 2006 12:14pm

It’s pretty obvious that the comment critic doesn’t like the movie because it doesn’t depict war in the manner he thinks it should be depicted. He gets offended because of the “escapism that this movie offers in this current time of war” which, I’m afraid to tell him, makes him a hater of nearly every war movie made during World War II.

To him I say, butch up kiddo. We’re not all naifs who believe that war is glorious shininess forever, but neither are we the judgemental sadsacks who can’t be content with our own mistery but who have to castigate everyone else for being as miserable as we.

Sometimes we want a movie chocked full of idealism. Sometimes such a movie is exactly what a nation needs to actually win a war. Sometimes a movie requires that those who watch it actually pay attention to the trailers, so they would know that they’re getting an escapist old-school war movie instead of the po-mo angstfests we’ve had foisted upon us for the past 20 years.

I think the “criticisms” seen in the posts here are exactly the same criticisms, foolish as I think they are, that had dragged the film’s tomatoey ratings down so badly.

Wed, Oct 04, 2006 3:11pm

Sorry, ‘Jimmie’ but there’s a major difference between this movie and ‘every war movie made during World War II’ – this movie has zero moral seriousness at its core. This movie exists to be a vehicle for CGI aerial dogfights and weary cliches about romance and glamour. I would be fine with an escapist war movie, but such a movie has to _earn_ its escapism, to acknowledge the truth of war while going in a different narrative direction. This movie does no such thing.

Also, every 1940s-produced war movie that I can think of offhand – Air Force, They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima – was about legitimate sacrifice and brotherhood, elements this movie pays shoddy, incompetent lip service too, then brushes off so that we can watch a guy try to outrun a fireball on top of a zeppelin, cheap thrills for the teenage boy market.

Furthermore, Jimmie, your suggestion that we need movies ‘chocked [sic] full of idealism’ ‘to actually win a war’ suggests a naivete and ignorance about how wars, especially our current ones, work, and the status of film art itself, and decrying ‘po-mo angstfests we’ve had foisted upon us for the past 20 years’ suggests you’re one of those emotionally stunted mouth-breathers I was referring to who probably thinks cinema zenithed in the 1980s with the Rambo movies.

Ms. Johanson, you are the one who thought the film showed war as fun and romantic: “it’s big and emotional and sentimental without being sappy, luscious with beautiful locations shot to make you fall in love with them, and with the sweetness of romance in which a passionate kiss constitutes the big sex scene.”
Your description is that of a 99-cent romance paperback. I am happy for you to like the movie, but you have to admit, it’s at that level of pulpy melodrama. This is the kind of movie for which the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ was invented.

Regarding your Matrix/Bible comparison, you’re missing my point. I think this movie is bad because, as Sam Fuller stated, war movies tend to make war look exciting and fool young people into fighting them. I don’t agree that’s true for all war movies, but it undoubtedly is for this one because of how blindered it is to any sense of realistic sacrifice, how intent it is on being nostalgic and escapist and nothing more. Shaping the attitudes of millions of potential soldiers is of greater concern than of a handful of disaffected goth youth.

Thu, Oct 05, 2006 12:03am

Say what you will, Jeffmcm, but when you start using this kind of language:

suggests you’re one of those emotionally stunted mouth-breathers

you’re verging on getting your IP banned. Discuss this film as passionately as you like, but avoid personal attacks.

Plus, I don’t see how you got “fun” out of the bit you quoted from my review, and, also: “romantic” means more than merely “lovey-dovey, kissy-kissy.” I never said the film was Great Art, but I do think it’s more than mere “pulpy melodrama.” I also believe that if *Flyboys* has anything to do with our current fiasco in Iraq, it’s not as a rallying cry but as a counterpoint, to signal that some battles are worth fighting, worth sacrificing for, and some are not.

Thu, Oct 05, 2006 3:45pm

Ban me if you want, I’m sure Jimmie can defend himself. All he has to do is say he breathes through his nose and the issue is settled.

Flyboys has nothing to do with Iraq – it could have been made 10 years ago, or 70 years ago. Its lack of any interest in speaking to contemporary issues is why I consider it so offensive.
Furthermore, Flyboys does not say anything to the effect that “some battles are worth fighting for”. Its characters engage in video-game heroics, divorced from any issues to do with World War I or with modern times – why are they there? To ‘defend democracy’? To ‘protect the French’? These are obfuscations and pretexts to allow the filmmakers to make a movie with a bunch of stunt flying and bad CGI.

Sun, Oct 08, 2006 12:24pm

Jeffmcm, it’s not about anybody defending himself but about keeping the conversation about the movie, not about launching personal attacks against other posters. Attack an opinion, but don’t attack the person who holds the opinion. Simple as that.

Mon, Oct 09, 2006 5:49pm

“”Rather than engage a single issue of living in wartime, coping with the stresses and horrors, this movie presents a fantasy world of escapism where war is fun, thrilling, romantic, and makes you a better person and nobody really gets hurt because it’s PG-13.”

Wow. You thought the film showed war as fun and romantic? Perhaps that says more about you than it does about the film.”

Nice try, but circumstantial evidence dictates an unequivocal vice versa on that one. Consider, for instance, the fact that even the enthusiastic reviews for this film have been dictated in accordance with its unequivocal “fun” factor, a nostalgic return to the days of superficial glorified heroism as embodied by the various propaganda flicks of yesteryear. (As exemplified by, among other things, God knows how many of Jimmie’s posts). Furthermore, check the newspapers. How many critics have (whether positive or otherwise) classified this film as a grim, uncompromising glance at the horrors of warfare? Start counting, for I can guarantee that the numbers will invariably rescind to a halt upon but a single hand. (and an ordinary one at that).

So, no

The fact that you happen to qualify as possibly one of singularly few homo sapiens on the planet who considers this film anything but a perpetual “fun’n’games” treatment of the First World War clearly says far more about you than about the film, let alone jeffncn .

Indeed, I suppose all standards for good taste and beauty reside in the domain of purely subjective reasoning. As such, I suppose Flyboys could indeed be considered one of the pre-eminent epics in cinematic history, but so too can one potentially attempt a marketing campaign in the hygiene department under the potential slogan, “B.O., the new fragrance for men.”

Say what you will as a film critic, for my contempt for this movie stems from my vantage point both as a filmgoer and avid reader of military history, who can attest with complete certainty that the movie contains more than enough holes within the latter department with which to fill the entire Dunkin Doughnuts chain worldwide. From the inclusion of aircraft types that never existed in 1916, to the occupation of Decker’s farm that never could have transpired without the Germans perpetuating an ultimately non-existent break in the front line, to a myriad of ways in which the on-screen aircraft re-define the rules of aerodynamics by perpetuating a host of physically impossible feats, as so on.

Personally, I don’t envision an appraisal of the film’s overall “fun factor” as particularly offensive, despite the prevalence of clichés that could be potentially counted on one hand were one to possess a billion fingers. However, what drives me nuts are the ill-informed viewers who mistaken this cartoonish escapade as an authentic representation of the real thing, thus boasting unwarranted credentials of what constitutes an authentic representation of WWI combat.

Mon, Oct 09, 2006 10:31pm

Well, I never called the film “authentic,” or even implied that it was a strictly accurate representation of history. Must film be entirely factual in order to be effective? Is *Mr. Smith Goes to Washington* “authenic”? Is *Gone with the Wind* absolutely historically correct down to the smallest detail?

I don’t care if they aren’t. We invented fiction because it can reveal more truths than the strictest laying out of facts. I know that if you’ve got a particular depth of knowledge about the arena in which a fictional story fudges with the facts that it can ruin the story for you — I recognize that, and I’ve experienced it myself. But that does not change the fact that those of us who are not so focused on the details can take something from the story nevertheless.

Wed, Oct 11, 2006 11:31pm

Okay, so maybe I inferred more from that “based-on-reality” comment that you actually implied.

Fair enough.

But please, spare me the “fretting about insignificant details” retortion. Consider an alternate “Gone With the Wind” in which the Southern Mansion and Confederate Soldiers have been relocated to upper New York state, or if “Dance With Me” or Sally Potter’s “Tango Lesson” had attempted to
recalibrate competitive Latin Ballroom techniques
with tap-dancing routines. For clearly, the above represents but a mild example of the extremities to which Tony Bill manipulates reality.

Granted, all self-proclaimed war epics bear their
share of inaccuracies; I acknowledge that. For, even I can locate a number of nitpickings within Jack Gold’s masterful “Aces High” (1976)(by far,
the most realistic representation of war over the front to date) . Yet, rarely has a film featured shortsights so glaring and numerous (historically, technically, and physically speaking)
as to fatally compromise (in my opinion) even the slightest adhesions to an historical subject matter.

Thu, Oct 12, 2006 11:39am

I don’t think you’re being fair to the film. Getting technical details about planes wrong is not the same as shifting the action of GWTW to the North (and neither is, I don’t think, shifting German lines a bit, if that is indeed what *Flyboys* does).

You say the film is “fatally compromised,” and perhaps it is, if you’re looking for a documentary about WWI. What I took from the film — that there was once a time when there were things worth fighting and sacrificing for — is not fatally compromised. Another detractor called the film a “security blanket of a movie to caress [my] wartime insecurities,” but it is exactly the opposite of that: the film does not make me feel better about the clusterfuck mess we’re in now in Iraq, it makes me feel much, much worse, by reminding me that some wars are just and moral, and some wars — like our invasion of a sovereign nation for trumped-up, bullshit reasons — are not.