December 14, 2006 -- This movie actually came out earlier in the year, but was never shown in Laramie, so I caught it last week (December 13) at a second run theater in Cheyenne. I liked this film a lot. The aerial combat scenes are visually stunning. The love story portion of the movie doesn't work all that well, but that's not why you go see a movie like this. It is the aerial combat scenes that are the main drawing card. The story is loosely based on the exploits of American combat pilots serving as volunteers in the Lafayette Escadrille for France in World War I.
These pilots were among the first aerial combat pilots in history. They and their contemporaries invented many of the tactics still used today in aerial dogfights. They fought without such life-saving devices as parachutes, protective armor and self-sealing fuel tanks that pilots in later wars had. They flew in flimsy wooden planes covered in canvas. These aircraft were notoriously underpowered and their guns, which jammed frequently, carried a relatively small amount of ammunition. It took great courage to fly these planes into combat. The Americans in the Lafayette Escadrille fought against the Germans prior to America's entry into the war. Pointedly, each pilot is given a handgun, not for self-defense, but for suicide in case their plane catches on fire.
James Franco (the “Spider-Man” movies) stars as Blaine Rawlings, a cowboy from Montana who needs to escape the law. He joins the Lafayette Escadrille to get away from a possible jail sentence, learn a trade and have some adventure. He soon finds more adventure than he bargains for. He and his fellow pilots discover the Germans have good pilots and superior aircraft. Fighting them is a very risky business. Their squadron is led by the enigmatic ace Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson of “Bride and Prejudice”) whose past is as mysterious as his motives for fighting. The other pilots come from various backgrounds, rich, poor, pious and traditional military families. There is even one black man in the group, Eugene Skinner (played by Abdul Salis of “Love Actually”) his character is based on the real historical pilot Eugene Bullard, who not only fought for the Lafayette Escadrille, but for the French Foreign Legion.
Although the scenes on the ground don't match those in the air, the story was good enough that I didn't notice the long running time of 140 minutes. Every drama needs a bad guy and this one has “The Black Falcon,” a skilled German pilot without honor (played by Gunnar Winbergh of “Millions”). In the early days of aerial combat, there was still a remnant of chivalry. If one pilot ran out of ammunition, his opponent might let him live out of a sense of fair play. The Black Falcon shoots a pilot on the ground after his plane has crashed. This sort of ruthlessness is a foreshadowing of the total war that is to come later, when the last remnants of honor and fair play are stripped from combat and it becomes every man for himself. There is also a romance between Rawlings and the beautiful Lucienne (Jennifer Decker of “Cobb”). There is a nervous breakdown, several daring rescues and one character learns to overcome his prejudices. This film rates a C+.
Many critics have panned this movie (it made some bottom 10 lists for 2006) on the basis of it having computer-generated aerial combat scenes. I didn't hear any similar complaining about the computer-generated combat in “Lord of the Rings” or the computer-generated battle scenes in “Flags of Our Fathers” or “Letters From Iwo Jima.” One might as well complain about the digital video cameras used in “Sin City,” but nobody did. Digital effects are a tool, a tool that worked to create scenes in this film that would have been near impossible to do otherwise. Get over it. If you like aerial combat scenes, this is a movie you'll want to see. It's better on the big screen, I don't know how well it will play on a television screen.
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