Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Starring James Franco, Martin Henderson, and Jean Reno. Directed by Tony Bill. Written by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans, and David S. Ward. Rated PG-13.
Air France

The story of Americaís first fighter pilots, Flyboys gets off the ground well.


Before the United States entered World War I in 1917, there were already a small number of American men who had gone to France to fight the Germans. Some of them trained to fly airplanes. These were the first American fighter pilots, and their squadron was called the Lafayette Escadrille. The badly titled Flyboys tells the story of this unit, and it turns out differently enough from the average military heroism yarn to be enjoyable.

Most of the main characters in this film were inspired by real-life members of the Escadrille, which is important to know because their backgrounds seem so impossibly colorful. The Arizona farmboy and ace flier Frank Luke is turned into Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a failed Texas rancher escaping a warrant for punching the banker who foreclosed on him. The Harvard graduate and millionaireís son Norman Prince becomes Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a cosseted scion of wealth whoís hoping to find some direction in life and possibly please his dad. Eugene Bullard, a slaveís son who fled America for a country that treated black men as human beings, is reincarnated here as Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a boxer who joins the military to defend his adopted homeland. They all take orders from Capt. Georges Thenault (Jean Reno), the actual name of the commander of the Lafayette Escadrille.

Letís dispense with the movieís shortcomings first. The movieís too long at 139 minutes, and it needed to lose the romantic plot between Blaine and a French peasant girl (Jennifer Decker, a French actress despite her English name). With neither of them speaking the otherís language, every scene between them cuts the movieís engines dead. Trevor Rabinís rah-rah music is stupidly oblivious to the materialís subtleties.

Itís good that there are subtleties here, at any rate. Skinnerís presence stirs up some believable crap among his white comrades, even if itís resolved too easily. The movie doesnít stint on the warís horrors, from the amputee soldiers at the station when the Americans first get off the train to the pilot (Philip Winchester) whoís grounded by the shakes after watching his friends die. When the gruff, hard-drinking squadron leader (Martin Henderson) bares his soul to Blaine, it isnít an inspirational moment. He concludes that the war has no purpose and only fights on to save the lives of his fellow men.

These touches give the movie substance in between the flashy aerial combat sequences ó director Tony Bill captures the spatial chaos without losing coherence. The filmmakers play up the oddness of these early planesí workings. We see each pilot given a hammer, to be used on the cocking mechanism of the planeís machine gun if it jams, as it frequently does. Each pilot is also given a pistol, to be used on himself if the plane goes down in flames, a less unpleasant alternative to burning along with the wreckage. Between its period detail and attention to character, Flyboys succeeds in taking this obscure corner of aviation and military history and bringing it to life.

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