10 High Altitude Performances

Inspired by 'Up in the Air', we look back at some memorable sky-high turns of the stars

by | January 13, 2010 | Comments

Airports and planes have long been the stuff of both movies and intense drama. Often used to either serve up melodramatic action with an array of A-grade stars (the infamous Airport film series, Snakes on a Plane), focus on man’s survival against the elements (Back to Eternity, Alive, Fearless, Castaway) or simply deliver nail-biting, edge-of-your-passenger-seat stuff (Executive Decision, Red Eye), Hollywood’s love affair with the skies continues this week — thanks to director Jason Reitman’s GFC-flavoured gem Up in the Air, with Clooney at the top of his game. Here, then, are 10 famous film flights in which careers soared… and, in some cases, suffered turbulence.

Jimmy Stewart was in peak form in this oft-overlooked gem directed by Billy Wilder. While many cite The Flight of the Phoenix, made some eight years later, as Stewart’s flying masterpiece, Wilder’s film is arguably more intriguing: Stewart stars as Charles ‘Lucky Lindy’ Lindbergh, who made the first transatlantic flight in 1927. Lindbergh isn’t presented as the pro-Nazi, unfriendly type (as he really was), but rather a wholesome, hard-working and, well, lucky fella. Perceived as cynical by some and simplistic by others, Wilder’s 1920s obsession remained well-fed.

Hilariously over-the-top affair based on Arthur Hailey’s soap opera-soaked novel, and centred on the daily grind at Chicago’s Lincoln International Airport — as run by an ever-weary Burt Lancaster. This is the film that spawned no less than three infamous sequels, which grew steadily worse in believability (Charlton ‘Moses’ Heston being lowered into a damaged plane mid-air in Airport 1975 being a case in point). Oscar came calling, though, and there’s a roll-call for what would feature in standard 1970s airplane disaster cabin-flying fare: a nervous bomber on board, a ‘dashing’ captain who’s seen better days (here, it’s Dean Martin), ever-present nuns, a soon-to-be alcoholic priest (see Horror at 37,000 Feet), hysterical women and children, and troubled souls… It all began right here, folks.

Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s glorious send-up of the 1970s airport movie craze (known to the rest of the world as Airplane! ) worked so well that a sequel was swiftly arranged with studio heads. Career-defining turns from Leslie “And don’t call me Shirley” Nielsen and Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves saw this timeless spoof recoup its budget (of $3.5 million) with ease during opening weekend. Nielsen, in particular, would become forever associated with slapstick and the lampooning of high drama (The Naked Gun followed later in the decade).

Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer “faced off” in fighter jets high in the sky, and the results were earth-shattering. The action-adventurer made both men — and their female co-star, Kelly McGillis — household pin-ups, sending Cruise into the stratosphere. Top Gun also signalled something of a rebirth for the movie soundtrack, with massive global hits (“Take My Breath Away”) mixed in with classic 1960s cuts (“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'”). The Sixties came back into vogue all over again, and planes, pilots and fighter jets were firmly back on the movie-goer’s radar for another generation to come.

Flying, erm, high on the success of his Lethal Weapon franchise — which catapulted Mad Max from respected Aussie expat to global superstar — Mel Gibson nevertheless entered the ’90s with this dud (and another, Bird on a Wire, with Goldie Hawn) before bouncing back with the likes of Braveheart. Co-star Robert Downey Jr. repeats his young rookie role from True Believer, with Mel replacing James Woods as his grouchy mentor, here running guns for cash. There’s stunning cinematography (it’s Thailand we’re seeing, not Laos, where it’s set) and some worthy points about US Government foreign policy, but it’s all ultimately lost in a meandering mess that favours slapstick over substance.

Six years before the Blade series finally gave him the bonafide leading man status he deserved, Wesley Snipes was doing time with films such as this forgettable airliner terror yarn, appropriately dubbed “Die Hard on a plane”. What’s interesting about it is the appearance of a young Liz Hurley, making her Hollywood debut as the stewardess helping to clean up the mess. Ms Hurley is, oddly, virtually unrecognisable to how she appears today — just check out those eyebrows, cheeks, chin and lips! — and fails to make an impact on screen. Her luck — in film, at least — remains largely unchanged to this day.

“Get off my plane,” Indy growled, as terrorists took over the mother of all jets. It was somehow fitting (and long overdue) for Harrison Ford to finally play the US President. He had been Han Solo, after all. Australian Brian Trenchard-Smith (The Man From Hong Kong) attempted an unrelated ‘sequel’ of sorts (Air Force Two aka In Her Line of Fire) some nine years later, about the Vice President being hijacked, but this one wins on all counts. Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘terror’ at 30,000 feet is so outrageously formulaic — typically of the time, Gary Oldman hisses as the Russian baddie — that it shouldn’t work. But it does.

Take one legendary director, America’s favourite leading man and a bizarre story loosely based on real events — of one man perpetually stuck in limbo, in an airport terminal — et voila, cinematic gold! Except it wasn’t. Steven Spielberg went horribly over the top with some questionable musical set pieces, and star Tom Hanks looked as lost as Viktor Navorski, the man who’s got nowhere to go thanks to immigration.

The title refers to Howard Hughes, aviating pioneer and film director/producer extraordinaire (Flying Leathernecks being an early aviation movie gem). As is typical these days, director Scorsese favoured Leonard DiCaprio for the job, but this is arguably Cate Blanchett’s film. Ms Blanchett — so criminally robbed of Oscar for Elizabeth — finally won a gong for her astute take on Katherine Hepburn and her ‘daahhhhling’ mannerisms. Hollywood approved; although Scorsese would have to wait another two years for his long overdue prize, for The Departed.

Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass wrote and helmed this dramatisation of what may have happened on United Flight 93 — aka the ‘one that got away’, supposedly aimed at the White House on 9/11 but which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. While the true story may never be known, Greengrass’ film is tight on drama and atmosphere, and thankfully low on sentiment, and inevitably unsettling in its finale. Wisely opting for unknowns, Greengrass delivered on a subject that was understandably still raw for many Americans. None of his cast, though, benefited greatly from the experience.