The Concorde... Airport '79 (1979) (part 1 of 6)
Airport was the progenitor of the disaster genre, and while it didn’t kill it (that honor goes to the desultory When Time Ran Out…), the series ended with the most pathetic of whimpers with The Concorde: Airport ’79. Whereas the previous three films could boast all-star (if aging) casts, by the time this landed in theaters it could boast the star power of Martha Raye.
“Dispirited” sums up the film. The cast is the dregs of C-listers and cameos that in other films would be ripe pickings for mudslides, avalanches, and killer polar bears. And most of those characters wouldn’t even be given the dignity of a name. In fact, many of the cast still isn’t named. It’s almost like the original headliners for the project were Ryan O’Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Cheryl Ladd, and Laurence Olivier as the cantankerous millionaire, but they dallied too long at a coffee break and the filmmakers decided to go ahead with whatever actors they could find.
Plotwise, this movie is a breathtaking effort to avoid any actual tension. I know we’re supposed to have become a kinder, more sensitive nation, to realize the nastiness of wishing for death and destruction. To join hands and sing and learn to play the dulcimer. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize the reason a lot of us paid good money to see The Day After Tomorrow is to find out who bites it and in what cinematic way. Well, I’ll spoil you up front and say this film has a body count of two. Two. You’re likely to see more carnage on an average episode of The Gilmore Girls than today’s subject.
Having spent their nickel on Robert Wagner, the producers seem to have been reluctant to spend much on anything else. The cinematography is Movie of the Week, the script seems to have been fished out of a Knots Landing slush pile, and there isn’t a single speck of movie that hasn’t been done before and much better at that. It’s not “matchless intrigue soar[ing] out of the sky at supersonic speed” as the box promises. It’s the movie equivalent of being stuck on the runway for two hours while the insurance salesman sitting next to you won’t shut up about his grandkids.
Manqué Hermann music plays over the Universal logo. The credits are shown over clips of the Concorde taxiing and taking off. Interestingly, this was the same plane that exploded on the runway in July of 2000. I could make a tasteless joke, but I’m trying to at least start on the high road. The music goes into a percussive rift later stolen for the ABC World News Tonight theme. Meanwhile, George Kennedy gets a special credit “as Patroni”. I can’t begrudge anyone a meal ticket.
The music abruptly stops and we cut to a group filling a hot air balloon. I don’t think I need to trot out Ebert’s Rule on Hot Air Balloons, do I? A not quite seamless piece of stock footage shows the Concorde in flight. Inside the cockpit, Captain Paul Metrand (played by Alain Delon) asks if anyone would like some coffee and goes to the cabin where the crew is chatting. He says he’d like some coffee and a dark haired stewardess goes to get it. Lest we wonder why he can’t pour coffee his own damn self, we find it was a ruse so he could talk to her. He says he was surprised to see her name on the crew list and her curt reply is that life is full of surprises. He says he thought she had retired. What, at the ripe age of twenty-eight?
She says she changed her mind. He starts to say he’s glad and she coldly asks him if that will be all. Her forced smile disappears as she turns and walks back to her seat. The first hour will be filled with moments like these, subplots that are never mentioned again or are dragged out to their painfully obvious conclusion. Not that I’m saying this is one of those plots. It’s quite possible they’re not former lovers who due to the pressures of their careers broke up and who will at the crisis point rediscover their love. Really, it could happen.
Plucking Strings of Impending Disaster play as we see a close up of the hot air balloon. It bears the banner “STOP THE CONCORDE”. It’s also sprouted an obvious rope anchoring it to the ground.
Back in the cockpit, the co-pilot sees the American coastline and says, “Le nouveau monde,” spurring Paul to go into a brief flight of philosophical whimsy. “It is still amazing to me, only three hours ago we were in Paris. The world seems so small.” I know I’m missing out on a cornucopia of humor by not making French jokes, but as I maintain a soft spot for their fine food, fancy clothes, and incompressible movies, I’ll be abstaining. Plus, as Alain Delon is one of the few pleasant surprises in this film, I’d like to show some gratitude somehow.
The navigator (played by David Warner, who given the amount of schlock he’s appeared in is lucky that he’s not already an Agony Booth Repeat Offender) tells them Dulles has given them the all-clear to land. Back at the control tower, a controller confirms the order as something catches his eye outside the window. “Holy Christ,” he mutters. Of course, he doesn’t do anything like maybe radio anybody on the plane to tell them what he sees.
We cut to Warner asking, “What is over the runways, Dulles?” The co-pilot, who now bears a disturbing resemblance to John Kerry, yells something to Paul in French. Paul banks a sharp turn to avoid the hot air balloon while the stewardesses yell in alarm. At the same time, a male steward tumbles backward. My god, a man turning a clumsy summersault, can your heart take the pulse pounding The Concorde… Airport ’79?
Before we can find out whether the steward has survived his horrifying brush with death, we cut to a TV studio where a news anchor is reporting on the event. It turns out the balloonists belong to the radical environmental group called “Airpeace”. But their antics won’t stop the Concorde from being handed over to “Federation World Airlines”, making it America’s first supersonic commercial carrier. Nor will it stop the Concorde’s planned goodwill flight to Paris, and then to Moscow.
The next news item deals with Harrison Industries testing their new missile “The Buzzard”. The footage is narrated by the science editor, who I swear sounds exactly like Harry Shearer. The Buzzard, which I’m sure in no way will ever reappear in the movie, is the latest in military attack drones. A special television camera and computer in the nose make it one of the most accurate and deadly weapons in the US arsenal, and it has “a hitherto unheard of rate of successful kills close to 100 percent!” But this probably isn’t going to come up again, so I wouldn’t pay too much attention.
We get the first laugh out loud special effect as the Buzzard and a dummy target plane are crudely matted onto the sky. The missile chases the plane in a manner somewhat more believable than taking two paper airplanes and making them dive after each other while making “Pew! Pew! Narrrrrrr!” noises. The Buzzard hits, causing the expected “dye in water tank” explosion.
The anchor Maggie Whelan (played by Susan Blakely) takes over. The missile is the brainchild of Kevin Harrison, chairman and CEO of Harrison Industries. He also has been recently awarded the Man of the Year award by the “prestigious” United States Science Foundation. So it’s good he’s not the villain, otherwise that would be ironic. Yeah.
And finally tonight, the Russian Olympic Team has been making a goodwill tour of the States in preparation for the 1980 Moscow Games. Oops! It didn’t work out quite that way in real life, did it? Well, at least it’s not as embarrassing as Rambo helping out the nascent Taliban.
Maggie turns it over to sports reporter Robert “Simply Irresistible” Palmer (played by John Davidson). The movie manages to actually be funny for a second as his narration on the grace and beauty of gymnastics is spot on to the vapid pretentiousness of these things.
In a long shot, a dark haired gymnast does an impressive floor routine. She is Alicia Rogov, who is trying for her third gold medal. We cut to close up and suddenly she is no longer a 13 year old girl.
In a locker room spa bath, Alicia relaxes by singing a Russian folk song. Robert Palmer sneaks in and startles her. She tells him to leave but he hams it up, pantomiming a camera and asking if she would mind giving an interview. She laughs and tells him she’ll scream if he doesn’t leave. But he continues the interview and naturally she pulls him into the water.
In almost endearingly naked exposition, Robert asks why winning a third gold medal is so important to her, and asks if, at 24, she isn’t a little “old” for competition. Nice one, Casanova. She defiantly states, “Old? I want to show everyone you don’t have to be fifteen with figure like boy to win gold medal.” Apparently indefinite articles are the tools of a fascist bourgeois imperialist state.
He presses further, asking what happened to the shy girl he knew in Montreal. She slyly replies, “She grew up, and fell in love,” and they begin to make out, ick. She notices her coach arriving and panics and dunks Robert underwater. Her coach is played by Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge, best known today as the voice of the demon in The Exorcist. Coach tells Alicia to hurry up and Alicia tries to suppress a giggle. She asks what’s wrong, and Alicia says the “bubbles tickle in strange places”. Oh, so not an image I need in my head. Coach tells her, “I want you to put all your strange places into nice dry clothes… now!”
Alicia tells Robert she’s gone, but he doesn’t surface. His clothes start to bubble to the top of the water. He then appears without his clothes on, tells her thank you for the interview and starts to leave. She stops him before he can get out of the water and dazzle us with a shot of his bare behind. Amanda gets Paul Newman, I almost get John Davidson’s ass. Life just isn’t fair. They begin to make out again and thankfully we cut away.