Written and directed by George Seaton (based on the novel by Arthur Hailey)
I mean, okay, it was real. It happened. It was important. Let's say, instead, it's been mythologized. Over the last half century and change, literally millions of words have been expended in pursuit of the bizarre, counterfactual idea that, when Bonnie and Clyde came out and shocked the squares of 1967, everything changed—from the way films were made, to the way they were sold, to the way that their audiences saw them, so that by 1970 (at the latest!) the contemptible mouthbreathers who came before them had been replaced, completely, by a new generation of aesthetes who, for the first and only time in film history, nurtured a passion for boundary-pushing art for grown-ups. This is largely just a story critics and historians tell each other, and like any mythology it has a lot of problematic embedded assumptions and is not particularly true: the mode of filmmaking that new critics like Ebert and Kael hoped to bury never actually died, just like the audience never actually left their appreciation for transportive cinema and rollicking adventure behind. This is why the standard narrative of New Hollywood's eclipse—American audiences spent five to ten years being uniformly sophisticated, then Jaws and Star Wars somehow inflicted head injuries upon all of them—is not merely a myth, but one you'd need a head injury of your own to believe.
So, in or around 1967, Old Hollywood "collapsed" (though of course it never collapsed) because of their misjudgments regarding the public's continued appetite for the ridiculously-expensive blockbuster genres that they'd developed in response to the ascendance of television (specifically, ancient-times period pieces and film musicals). Afterwards, Old Hollywood had to spend a few years figuring out what the new fads would be, and, more to the point, how to deliver those fads to consumers at scales commensurate with the revenue they could reasonably be expected to generate. One of those fads was angry young men experiencing ennui, which was called "New Hollywood," but there was still the same old mass audience out there, still desperate to give filmmakers their money in exchange for avowed entertainment.
That brings us to Universal Pictures, perhaps the studio best-positioned to weather the storm, in large part because they'd never been big enough to get bloated. Along with producer Ross Hunter, they financed to the tune of $10 million a film that would give birth to the trend that did more than anything to span the gap in populist cinema left by the humbling of Old Hollywood. This was Airport, about an airplane in trouble. It was hardly the first quote-unquote "disaster film," the disaster genre being almost as old as pictures themselves, but it was the first disaster film to break nine figures at the box office in its initial run. Earning a cool $100.5 million, this naturally attracted a whole host of imitators (and these included three Airport sequels). Disaster cinema went on to top the box office for several years afterward, and it persevered for several more, right up until the whole genre was laughed out of town with Airport's very own parody, 1980's age-defining comedy Airplane! Yet by then Airport and its successors had already done their job, bearing out the extraordinary resilience of both the studios and their blockbuster form, despite all the persistent attempts by those aforementioned critics and historians (and their successors, for let us not forget that even though we aren't required to live as a bunch of dead Boomers' cookie-cutter clones, many of us choose to do so anyway) to minimize and deride a cinematic phenomenon that was—objectively—as important as anything else of its era.
On the other hand, fifty years later, we can see that Airport is maybe not the exemplar it's sometimes said to be; in many ways, the pattern for some of the genre's biggest hits was not yet fixed. However, there is one big thing about it, which would be copied over and over, and that's its sense of scope and sprawl, most notably marked out by that undying staple of the disaster movie: the all-star cast. At this remove, you're probably taking that one on faith—the "stars" of Airport, in my eyes, really amount to just the one, a perfectly-cast Burt Lancaster. I am not unfamiliar with Dean Martin or George Kennedy, but I feel like they don't count: the former would've been famous even if he'd never been in any movie, and while I know who the latter is, it's mostly because he was in all four Airports (and the Naked Guns... but not the Airplane!s). For most people in 2020, I suspect that Airport's thronging cast would come off as vaguely familiar names without faces firmly attached—like Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, or Helen Hayes. Subsequent films in the genre (indeed, in this franchise) would do a better job at wrangling up more genuine "all-star" casts, and perhaps also at actually unifying the messy picture of humanity represented by the mosaic of their plots.
Not that Airport does that poorly, though it tilts dangerously toward caring too much about its little humans. Arthur Hailey's novel was adapted by the director himself, George Seaton (known almost exclusively for the original Miracle on 34th Street and for this, in other words for two pieces of kitschy generational nostalgia that bookend a mostly-middling career), and Seaton does justice, I presume, to that source material, in that Airport begins as—and for a long time remains—just the story of a busy, snowbound night at Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago. To the extent that this story is anchored by anybody, it's by the airport's manager, Mel Bakersfield (Lancaster), presently dealing with the thousand and one headaches that constitute his job, in addition to one very big headache in the form of a Boeing 707 stuck in the snow and blocking a runway. This means that for the moment he's ignoring his loveless wife (Dana Wynter), though he won't be able to do so much longer. Meanwhile, Trans Global Airline's senior customer service manager Tanya Livingston (Seberg) is dealing with her job's problems, most amusingly Ada Quonsett (Hayes), the unrepentant old lady who's made a habit of stowing away on TGA flights, and who, despite being caught in the act, has managed to wriggle free once more to get on board yet another flight, this time to Rome. Meanwhile again, TGA pilot Vernon Demerest (Martin) has been assigned to that very same flight, alongside his girlfriend, flight attendant Gwen Meighen (Bisset), who informs him that he's gotten her pregnant, something that will almost certainly not go down well with his wife, Sarah (Barbara Hale), who just so happens to be Bakersfield's sister—though what leg Bakersfield would have to stand on here, given his own extremely obvious extramarital relationship with Livingston, is hard to say. Meanwhile, finally—for there are a great many "meanwhiles" in these movies, and I've certainly skipped at least two-thirds of the speaking parts, including that of mechanic and immortal Airport mascot Patroni (Kennedy)—Demerest's flight to Rome is in deep trouble, for a temperamental demolition man, one D.O Guerrero (Van Heflin), has concocted a desperate scheme to finally provide for his long-suffering wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton) in death in all the ways he never could in life, by buying a whole lot of flight insurance for a very one-way trip.
The basic situation, of course, is that our bomber eventually blows up part of the plane, and Airport is about how most of the above-listed individuals try to get it back to Chicago safely, despite God throwing so many obstacles in their way. For an astonishingly long time, however, this is almost entirely theoretical: it's half an hour into a movie that runs a very generous 137 minutes before even the barest penumbra of that basic situation makes itself known, and it is one hour, nine minutes, and twenty-six seconds (I checked) before the damn plane actually takes off, and hence significantly more than an hour before anybody's in anything but the most hypothetical kind of danger. If you had no idea what Airport was (and maybe if you went to the bathroom while Guererro looks over his bomb), you would almost certainly think that you were watching a soap opera, just one set in an airport. On the plus side, that soap opera isn't terrible, in part because it's so well-alloyed with a what amounts to a light procedural about how an airport runs on a bad night, replete with interpersonal friction in a visually interesting setting. (Art directors E. Preston Ames and Alexander Golitzen's Lincoln Airport set is fairly bland as far as movie airports could go—presumably on purpose, to reflect the real thing—but it's still very big and very full of extras, plus Hunter even rented an actual 707 for the exterior shots on the ground, and it bends and creaks and sways with magnificent heft amidst a lot of believable fake snow. This was a coup, albeit one that does contrast somewhat with the laughably-rigid plastic model and the dry ice that he used for the shots in the "sky.")
Mostly, though, it's good soap opera because it's such unusually sober soap opera, with most everyone involved allowed to be remarkably mature and reflective about their various bad behaviors. (Besides some of the more unpleasant no-name passengers on the flight, Widow Quonsett alone is allowed to be just silly, and she's highly effective at it, even if "effective comic relief" is perhaps not entirely worthy of Hayes's Best Supporting Actress victory.) Anyway, while the only place I've ever seen Airport described as "New Hollywood" was on a spurious Wikipedia list, and I strongly doubt I'll ever see it described as such anywhere else, there's an argument to be made that it takes some influence from it, for it is remarkably happy to withhold its judgment and accept its characters as just a bunch of flawed human beings, working through their shit. (The, ahem, "decompressed" style of storytelling is perhaps another sign of that influence.) In any case, it somehow even takes this attitude with Guerrero—possibly the most pathetically small monster to have ever served a major motion picture as its villain.
Indeed, one even suspects it's only because a thriller plot finally develops that Airport's drama earns any right to occupy the low-key register it does, and yet it does mostly work, bouncing kinetically back and forth across its various threads, even if some are in clear need of cutting (the "neighboring suburb threatens a noise lawsuit" subplot being the most baffling of the dead weight, though it's an insanely long time before Quonsett ever develops any plot function herself). But in its glut of characters and even in its pointless detail, Airport accomplishes a nicely-textured depiction of a living community, as well as an interesting time capsule of where society was in 1970, from its clothes and styles and Seberg's awful hairdo (Edith Head did the costumes, though only the cleanly-designed yellow-and-gray uniforms of the flight att—oh, forget it, they are undeniably still "stewardesses" here—really announce themselves), to its politics. Airport existed in that strange, brief period where abortion could be discussed but didn't have to be the entire show—Airport weighs against it, but without any special effort to turn that into a rule of general applicability—and Livingston emerges as a straight-up protagonist, with a stretch in the middle where the female middle manager becomes the most critical narrative chesspiece in the whole story, as she puts the fragments of Guerrero's plan together out of the scattered evidence just in time to affect its outcome.
But then, that airborne thriller is what we're here to see, and now the biggest problem becomes plain as day: because once Airport's blown its load, there's virtually nowhere else to escalate to, at least short of the death of every soul aboard (needless to say, an unlikely outcome), and one presumes this is why this disaster film's lead-up is so atypically long, as it goes for a good hour of literal show-the-bomb suspense. In Airport's defense, it is a more compelling disaster movie before its disaster actually happens. But then, unless it did indeed commit to an ending that wouldn't make much sense for a crowdpleaser, this disaster movie is always going to remain largely incapable of the morbid spectacle one expects out of its genre.
Why are these children not exploding?
Before this, Airport is a slow burn but a good one, given a nice marching score by Alfred Newman and handsomely photographed by Ernest Laszlo, the latter offering just enough filmic sheen for our workaday surroundings to not seem completely banal, while cheating surprisingly little with the obstructions inherent to a set representing the interior of an airliner, giving Airport a subliminal docudrama-like feel. The real champion collaborator, however, is seasoned editor Stuart Gilmore, who keeps that soap opera flowing across a dozen characters while finding a nice steady ratchet of tension in the thriller plot, and who deals admirably with the loudest of the techniques Seaton decided to use, that is, a whole heck of a lot of splitscreen. The splitscreen carves Airport's Todd-AO frame into a multitude of geometric arrangements, and it's really a wonderfully-immediate way that Seaton found to tell his geographically-disparate story, though he uses it almost exlcusively on behalf of telephone and radio conversations rather than on behalf of his thriller-in-progress (obviously, Seaton isn't exactly Brian De Palma or Norman Jewison), and other than the neat ornamental designs he and Gilmore make out of it, there's really only the one sequence that uses splitscreen artistically, in the film's sole flashback, a montage of the Bakersfields' crumbling marriage. Still, this is of a piece: what Airport is above all is functional, yet so incredibly and so consistently functional that, in the end, it adds up to a film much more engaging and entertaining than such a backhanded compliment as "functional" ought to imply.