Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Oh, those rickety biplanes, all canvas and wood and held together by spit and a prayer, coming taxiing out of the early morning fog ... and there's the sad tin-whistle music and the eager young men jumping to get up in the air and get themselves killed!
Just the idea of the Great War, the built-in tragedy and pathos of too many young lives chewed up by the sudden and unexpected new horrors of mechanized warfare ... well, it's no surprise that Flyboys comes from producer Dean Devlin, who was behind movies like Independence Day and The Patriot, movies not known for their subtlety.
Flyboys does not squander what instant drama it is handed in its premise: the short careers of the world's first fighter pilots in the skies over France. It invokes that old-fashioned Hollywood magic, the kind that sweeps you up and away.
And maybe that's not surprising, since among the handful of screenwriters is David S. Ward, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sting. This ain't Michael Bay at work here, and the cast of mostly unknowns isn't here because they look good on the screen which isn't to say that they don't but because they can bring a sense of character and importance that far too many of today's young actors can't.
There's James Franco (Spider-Man) as the Texas cowboy volunteering to fly for the French (and running from a bullshit arrest warrant back in Texas) before the U.S. joins the war. And there's Martin Henderson (The Ring) as the flying ace when Franco and his American compatriots arrive in France.
It's not that there's anything drastically revelatory: You know what to expect, and you get it, done as well as Hollywood ever gets it. These fresh-faced boys arrive all enthusiastic into the middle of the what would be the most horrible war ever (they, of course, lack the benefit of hindsight), and they learn to fly are among the first people ever to learn to fly, actually, in those tiny, pathetic machines with no instruments. And they learn to live with their own shocked selves as the realities of this new way of waging war hits them in the face.
Franco's character falls in love with a pretty French girl (of course), and there's lots of exciting air battles that make you understand why George Lucas used footage of World War I dogfights as the template for those in Star Wars. Pilots die in heroic ways, and sometimes in stupid ways.
But it's all pulled together in that magical movie way that gets you caught up and makes you care and leaves you feeling, weirdly enough, somehow like a better person for having shared in this based-on-reality story. Flyboys is the kind of movie that, when Hollywood gets it right, it does best a grand yarn of adventure and catastrophe, of optimistic dreams settling into shattered certainty. It's big and emotional and sentimental (without being sappy), luscious with beautiful locations shot to make you fall in love with them, and sweet enough of a romance where a passionate kiss constitutes the "big sex scene."