1970 - G - 137 Mins.
|Director: George Seaton
|Producer: Ross Hunter
|Written By: George Seaton
|Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Jean Serberg and Jacqueline Bisset
|Review by: Bill King
"Airport" is everything a disaster movie should be. Special effects were only getting better in the 1970s, and experts improved their ability to create new sights and, more significantly, find ways to destroy stuff. With this newfound resource came the desire to abandon good old-fashioned character driven plots and focus on thrills. Most disaster movies are watchable at least once, to give the viewer a good distraction for its duration, but the better flicks incorporate three-dimensional characters and smarter screenplays. "Airport" is such a film. For its 2 hours and 17 minutes, the movie is absolutely enthralling. It takes about an hour to set the plot into high gear, but even then the setup is bustling with activity.
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The film follows several subplots that will converge into one disaster scenario. Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the general manager of Chicago's Lincoln International Airport. His job is so demanding that his wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) complains of his frequent negligence towards his family. He's one of those movie dads who misses birthdays, social events and family outings. On this particular snowy day, he'll get more than he bargained for when a number of unfortunate events make him work overtime.
A plane heading towards its gate makes a turn too soon (due to the snow-covered runway) and grinds to a halt in the mud. This will close off this runway for hours, forcing planes to use another runway that local residents claim is the cause for their misery. Planes fly right over homes, and petitioners call for the runway's closure. Mel is under pressure to comply with these demands, but his only concern is making sure airplanes take off on time. Along with this headache is his irritating brother-in-law, Captain Demerest (Dean Martin), a hotshot pilot bound for Rome. His flight is delayed because of the stuck aircraft.
Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) is the head of the airport's public relations department. A security guard brings her Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes, who won an Oscar for her performance), an elderly woman who often sneaks aboard flights using a variety of methods. In one amusing scene, she explains her tactics to the bewildered Tanya and Mel. Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) is the airport's lead maintenance man, and it's his job to remove the stuck airplane. He has a plan to get the job done, but his methods are deemed too extreme for the plane's pilot, who refuses to hand over the controls.
Once Captain Demerest's plane takes off, Mel receives more alarming news. There could be a desperate bomber on board named D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin). We learned earlier in the film that he's facing financial difficulties, and arranges for a huge life insurance policy to be paid to his wife (Maureen Stapleton). Also on board is Ada, who gave airport security the slip and snuck onboard this flight. This development brings the setup to a close, and what follows is an amazing payoff. The airplane must carefully turn around, so that Guerrero doesn't suspect anything, and land at Lincoln on a runway that is blocked by another airplane. If that bomb were to go off, then the situation on the runway becomes more critical.
From start to finish, "Airport" (based on Arthur Hailey's novel) grabs our attention with little difficulty. The various subplots intertwine neatly at the start, giving us a large cast of characters to keep track of, but that isn't difficult. George Seaton, the writer and director, establishes a situation before moving on to the next. As the film progresses, he introduces additional problems to further the complications, and the film jumps around from one situation to the next, so we can watch how the plots build towards a single goal, which is to land a plane on a snowy runway that already has a plane on it. There are reasons why only this runway must be used, and not others. Suffice it to say that, for this particular emergency, this runway is the best bet.
Another contributing factor to the film's effectiveness is the editing. Very often, George Seaton uses split-screen techniques to film conversations between actors in different locations. This saves Seaton from cutting back and forth while the action is taking place in front of us. Finally, there is the level of knowledge in the screenplay. "Airport" has the aura of authenticity going for it. Every character, from the pilots to the mechanics, knows how to do his job. Not once do we get the sense that these are actors playing roles. The film looks like a documentary following a real disaster. The direction is so polished that improbabilities (such as how Guerrero got a bomb through airport security) don't tarnish the film's overall professional look.
"Airport" is one of the first disaster films of the '70s to establish the trend of using big name actors. After "Airport," Irwin Allen rose to prominence with "Earthquake" (Charleton Heston), "The Poseidon Adventure" (Gene Hackman) and "The Towering Inferno" (Paul Newman and Steve McQueen). "Airport"'s own cast list is very impressive. Burt Lancaster gives a terrific lead performance. As the general manager, Lancaster reveals his character's doubts and insecurities, but also his strengths. As one problem after another arises, Lancaster balances stress with the ability to tackle these problems with a calm demeanor. Dean Martin as Captain Demerest projects cockiness in his initial scenes, but that is the source of his strengths. Once he learns of the bomb onboard his plane, he takes charge to handle the situation, using every resource available to end the threat.
The Academy honored "Airport" with multiple nominations, including Best Picture. Every one of those nods were deserving. George Seaton's film is a fine example of presenting a disaster scenario without succumbing to mindless action. The MPAA gave the movie a G rating, but this shouldn't be classified as a kid's movie. There is nothing in the film that parents need to worry about. Swearing is non-existent, one person dies, another is seriously injured and two people are having an adulterous affair. Seaton doesn't present any of this material in an exploitive manner, making "Airport" fine entertainment for anyone in any age-range.