Directed by David Lowell Rich
Written by Jennings Lang and Eric Roth
Yes, I've spoken previously on the hapless naming scheme of Airport's sequels, but let us agree that The Concorde ...Airport '79—or The Concorde: Airport '79, or The Concorde Colon Ellipsis Airport Apostrophe LXXIX (even The Concorde: Airport '80)—is, in any iteration, a world-historically bad title. It might be the worst reshuffling of a brand name in film history, so repulsive that you could easily get confused transcribing it: there's the "canonical" rendering in the film's credits sequence, but I've seen it reproduced in a bewildering variety of ways, even by its own distributor. You'd think it at least should be "Airport '79 ...The Concorde."
There were a couple of factors pushing series producer Jennings Lang towards this typographic abomination. The first was the Concorde itself, the iconic Mach 2 airliner that first took flight in 1969 under a cordial agreement between Aerospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation. It had only been in commercial operation since 1976, but it had immediately acquired its lasting reputation for speed, luxury, incredibly burdensome noise, and awesomeness. In 1979, it was still the height of aspirant futurism, and Lang had spent the last few years badgering Air France to let him use one of their rad new planes for one of his rad movies about planes being destroyed in rad ways—and you can see why this idea was appealing to him, but not to Air France, so I assume Lang's willingness to put the brand name front-and-center helped. Less explicably, Lang also wished to avoid confusion with Airport 1975 and Airport '77, and my response to that is that 1975, 1977, and 1979 are, you know, different numbers.
Airport '79, in any case, is the last Airport. According to most observers then and now, it's also the worst Airport, and if The Swarm had been the bullet in disaster cinema's heart, Airport '79 was another nail in its coffin: the Airport franchise had managed to thrive even in the increasingly-hostile marketplace of the late 70s—Airport '79 was the last major disaster film for years to make real money, $65 million on a $14 million budget, no less—yet despite its "success," the story goes that Airport '79 was so undeniably bad that Lang and Universal gave up, in shame. It surely didn't help that the following year's Airplane! gave the disaster genre its final benediction, mocking the airplane disaster movie in particular into complete oblivion.
This is all more-or-less objectively true, as a read on audience opinion and the contemporary industrial situation (it should be further pointed out that Airport '79 was only successful internationally, and didn't make enough in North America to quite recoup its budget). It's to Lang's credit, then, that he walked away from disaster cinema without ever losing money for himself or his studio; Irwin Allen couldn't make the same claim. Yet I wonder if Airport '79 was always going to be his franchise's conclusion, for Airport '79 is astoundingly valedictory for what it is, the final run of an assembly line. I prefer to think that Lang, who authored the story before handing it off for script duties to a young Eric Roth, wanted to take his franchise as far, as fast, and as matinee-fun as it could go before he shut it down forever. Hence the necessity of getting the Concorde, the most muscular civilian aircraft ever flown; hence the utter extremity of the disaster this time around.
Obviously I can't speak to where Lang's heart was, but at least my feeling that this was a voluntarily ending is confirmed by the way that this Airport honors its own legacy, for rather than hiring some fading star like Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston to anchor its production, Airport '79 centers itself squarely upon none but George Kennedy. Kennedy had spent his decade with the Airport films as a secondary character who was, nonetheless, the sole and unique point of continuity within the franchise, and the only reason we can be sure they even take place in the same universe. (Kennedy was quite possibly the only person whatsoever, cast or crew, and Lang included, who worked on all four of the films.) And so a series that all along had been "about" Kennedy's Joseph Patroni sitting on the sidelines now puts its franchise mascot in the pilot seat, demanding he prove his own mettle in the midst of death and destruction. Kennedy retains the curious screen credit he's always had, with every single marquee and sub-marquee performer coming before him over the course of the opening titles; but this time the AND George Kennedy AS "PATRONI" means something. It's kind of perfect, and better fanservice than you usually get these days.
Of course, Patroni is joined for this adventure by the usual assortment of random strangers, and indeed the first folks we meet aren't Patroni but Capt. Paul Metrand (Alain Delon, who occasionally speaks French phrases that Universal's blu-ray subtitler has trouble with, like "au revoir," "Armée de l'Air," and "je t'aime") and radio operator Peter O'Neill (David Warner), as they ferry an Air France Concorde recently purchased by America's Federation Airlines to its destination at Dulles Airport. Thanks to some nice, solid, obfuscatory intercutting, the disaster module that prefaces the film is almost as much as a surprise to them as to us, when they almost run into a hot air balloon that several eco-terrorists have positioned over Dulles to intercept the Concorde on its landing; yet they navigate this danger with aplomb, and Metrand hands over command of the Concorde to Federation's pilot, Patroni, with the kind of "Captain"/"Captain" chumminess that's terribly dorky, but you'd feel cheated if you didn't get it.
They're all on hand for the Concorde's first flight for Federation, which gives us our passengers: the mom urgently couriering a heart transplant to her kid in Paris (Cicely Tyson); the airline's former-barnstormer owner and his hot trophy wife (somebody who's not Lloyd Bridges, but sure looks like him, and Sybil Danning, respectively); the jazz singer (Monica Lewis, almost playing herself) and her saxophone player (Jimmie Walker); and, not least, a whole Russian Olympic team, principally an aging-out gymnastic prodigy (Andrea Marcovicci) and the American sports reporter who loves her (John Davidson), who have secret hot-tub sex before embarking on the trip; plus a deaf Russian kid (Stacey Heath Tolkin) whose father (Avery Schreiber) unaccountably communicates to her in garbled American Sign Language. Most importantly, however, there's TV anchorwoman Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), who, as host of the KPLOT Action News Hour, we've already met during an enormous exposition dump, which also introduced her paramour, Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner, also almost playing himself), an arms manufacturer presently in the midst of testing a new "drone" (i.e., "a long-range surface-to-air missile that looks like Cylons built it").
But Whelan's in trouble, having been accosted in her home by one of Harrison's employees (Macon McCalman), who's semi-correctly identified Whelan as a conscientious woman in spite of her choice of partner; he claims that Harrison hasn't just been selling his wares to America, but to a whole host of shady customers abroad, including the North Vietnamese while we were still at war with them. He'd tell her more but an assassin murders him right before her eyes. Her confrontation with Harrison the next morning is inconclusive, but when she boards the Concorde heading to Moscow, the dead man's wife hands her all the documents that prove her husband's damning claims. And so Harrison, with just one option remaining to him, reprograms this morning's weapons test, giving his missile new instructions to destroy the Concorde over the Atlanitc Ocean, thus sending his dead girlfriend into the drink—no muss, no fuss, and no prison time. (Told you Wagner was almost playing himself.)
That's comic-booky and silly, but I also adore the blunt directness of it. It's at least approaching the same level of maniac invention as Airport '77's heist plot, and this time it doesn't bifurcate the movie into two distinct phases that have nothing to do with one another. Above all, it's just cool. And that means, in case you didn't notice it before, that I'm badly off consensus. Okay, I agree that Airport '79 is the worst Airport—but only with regret. And whether that means it's a bad movie, full stop, well, there's a little room for an Airport to fall. I've often said the Airports were always the most reliable 70s disaster flicks, and Airport '79 doesn't entirely abandon that tradition.
The small things that are wrong with it, anyway, are weaknesses across the franchise, particularly the variety-show comic relief, and in truth it's less pervasive, or at least less concentrated, than Airport 1975's own "channel surf across a dozen bad sitcoms, one of which unaccountably stars Myrna Loy" opening act. The most thoroughly aggravating presence is probably Walker, whose character at least walks up to the line of racist caricature (his very first line, I believe, involves presumably made-up AAVE slang in the form of the word "congeal," meaning, from context, "to comprehend; to understand"). But I don't know what to tell you; most of it just isn't that bad, and whether I should be ashamed of it or not, I managed a small laugh with the denouement of the subplot about Martha Raye's constant anxious peeing, which is filmed funny, at least, with the utmost mock sincerity and a long push-in on the battered, wet figure as she tragically declares, "the bathroom's broken." The Charo cameo is neat, too: she is literally thrown off the plane and out of the movie because—and I think this is the gag—she would be too annoying, even for an Airport film.
Hell, in some respects, Airport '79's character dynamics are affirmatively good: Marcovicci and Davidson's romantic D-plot isn't the most interesting relationship in any Airport, but it honestly might be the cutest. Meanwhile, the rapid camaraderie found between Patroni and Metrand actually might rise to the level of "most interesting": I'm not sure I entirely approve of widowing Patroni or revealing him to have dealt with this loss by becoming an overgrown fratboy, but the locker room atmosphere that Kennedy, Delon, and Warner establish for their (emphasis theirs) cockpit is, again, at least more intelligible than the "sex?"/"sex sex!" banter of Airport 1975, and it's not like it's the sole dimension Kennedy is giving his character anyway. (It's actually an amazingly thoughtful performance, all things considered.) Nor do I really mind the obliquely-captured romance between Capt. Metrand and his long-time
stewardess flight attendant purser, Isabelle (Emmanuelle herself, Sylvia Kristel).
Nevertheless, the "total boondoggle" reputation that accrues to Airport '79 doesn't come from pure prejudice. It's worth pointing out that this is the worst-looking Airport, and while it's tempting to blame the slapdash televisualist behind SST: Death Flight—it's pretty obvious what resume item got director David Lowell Rich this particular job—it actually isn't his fault. For whatever reason, and I can't even begin to answer this, Lang obliged his returning 1975/'79 cinematographer Philip Lathrop to shoot this one in flat widescreen rather than Panavision, which already somewhat takes Airport '79 out of the Airport aesthetic universe, though the worst thing about it is the turn-of-the-decade filmstock that overresponds to light, so this is by some margin Airport's ugliest two hours.
But that's not what normal people grouse about, and the more usual complaints can be piddling: the first sin Airport '79 is judged upon, of course, is its very bad effects sequences. Not its special effects—the gimboled passenger compartment of the Concorde works fine. But arriving two years after Star Wars, Airport '79 was the first and only Airport to be made after special effects diverged from visual effects, and these are, with few exceptions, awful; they tend to arrive in the film's most outrageously incredible scenes, too, for example when Patroni has the genius idea to fire emergency flares out the window of a moving Concorde to distract a heat-seeking missile, which at least accords our hero some agency, though it frankly might have been more believable if the Concorde was just able to sustain the damage.
So those effects are really bad (the compositing is bad for 1979, and in this Airport's effort to look like Star Wars, it turns out bad compositing is a whole lot more noticeable against blue skies than against black space), and made worse by the fact that the story relies so heavily upon VFX shots and there's so many to get through, especially since they're mixed haphazardly with pure miniature work and straight-up actual Concorde footage. (And the miniature work is pretty damn good: there's one bit where I genuinely cannot tell if Lang actually just crashed his rented Concorde through a net or not—if it is miniature work, then they somehow got the background haze absolutely right—and that must be testament to something good.) But both the effects and the dubious action they represent at least arise from the same impulse. I can forgive Lang for what was ultimately a pretty noble desire to kick things up one last notch. For my part, it's terribly easy to enjoy it anyway, buoyed by the film's own blithe, cheerful ignorance of how anything about air combat works.
But if you, like me, were still prompted to wonder "but how do they sustain the threat of a SAM chasing a Concorde across 114 minutes and a whole transatlantic flight?" then the simple answer is "they don't," and this is where a big yawning abyss in the film's narrative structure opens up and threatens to swallow it whole. (I didn't mention it, but they are in fact attacked twice as they cross the Atlantic, again by a mercenary F-4.) And this threatens any goodwill built up over the course of a slapdash but charmingly-slapdash first hour that's been defined by Rich's competent bundling of a whole mess of subplots into a more-or-less coherent narrative. Much of this is done with basic brute force (that news report exposition is dire, and Rich and Lathrop were apparently staggered by the challenge of filming televisions). But, often enough, it's also done with actual engagement and better-than-functional thrills—like, it's not flawless, but the use of staging-in-depth as Whelan reads those incriminating documents aboard a giant airport person-mover while a glaring Harrison follows a parallel line, unseen, across the observation deck of the terminal, is the stuff of legitimately good suspense filmmaking. Likewise, the use of the futuristic contours of Charles de Gaulle Airport as the backdrop for a foot chase that almost ends with the Concorde flattening a guy, is, without any caveat, fantastic.
Now, I don't mind the idea of a slack middle stretch before returning to the treacherous air—it turns out I'm much more sympathetic than most are to that bizarre playlet about Metrand secretly hiring a prostitute (Bibi Andersson, of all people!) to make love to sad old Patroni, as I like these kind of weird dog's-ears in movies; meanwhile, I like that Metrand has accurately assessed his friend's needs even if he has technically "lied" to him. (And even then, there's a scene much later where Patroni admits he's thinking of his wife that's obviously in conversation with these events, and junky movie or not, Kennedy still does the work, creating emotional links between scenes that, fundamentally, are just dopey filler.) But then there's Whelan, and I don't know if it's a "plot hole" as such, as I suppose it's possible that somebody could be this stupid. But either way, she is outlandishly stupid: despite having barely survived not one but three assassination attempts, including two missile attacks, it does not yet occur to Whelan that perhaps her boyfriend, the missile manufacturer, might be attempting to murder her. And so she blithely gets right back aboard that Concorde to complete her trip to Moscow. There were easy ways around this, like just having Whelan die during the initial attack, while the documents themselves remain. Surely, there was never any need to emphasize how Goddamn dumb she is by having her actually talk to Harrison.
I don't quite get it: Airport '79 is dumb, but mostly in winking, enthusiastic, self-knowing ways. It's a movie that, depending on which aspect you're looking at, can look like the people who made it cared a great deal, or didn't give the first shit. And that's just how genre filmmaking shakes out sometimes, but this one fucking thing is so thoughtless and so Z-movie indifferent, that even if every other part of the movie was immaculate (and of course it's not: the final setpiece makes it all the more remarkable that Lang was able to get Air France onboard when the impression his movie gives you is that Concordes were built out of popsicle sticks), you'd still be obliged to call it the worst Airport. Fortunately, as far as 1979 disaster movies go, that's not the worst place it could've landed.