A Lot Like Summer Camp
It’s impossible to… well, it’s not impossible to engineer it, because we did it, but it really is wing-and-a-prayer stuff. You make the design, and you hope your numbers are right.
—John Moore, commentary, Flight of the Phoenix
I don’t see you breaking a sweat, stud.
—Kelly (Miranda Otto), Flight of the Phoenix
“Your first day is actually, for me anyway,” says Flight of the Phoenix John Moore, “a great relief, because you’re into the screw-ups, you’re into what can go wrong. Second day is worse. First day is fine, second is day is like, ‘Okay, we’re that bad at what we do.’” Chatting with an assembly of men for the new Fox DVD’s commentary track—namely, producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, and production designer Patrick Lumb—Moore is upfront about his concerns about doing this movie. A remake of Robert Aldrich’s classic WWII movie starring Jimmy Stewart (a film famous as a theatrical sort of character study, set in a specific location), Moore’s film is all updated for the early 21st century, chucky-full of action, wisecracks, and well-muscled men, with a girl along to ensure young-male demo satisfaction.
Amid their lively discussion of shot compositions (Moore observes the extra-long takes, to “get that sensation of endurance, the vastness of this unending landscape”), location scouting, and set designing, Moore notes that the most important choices were made early on, including the ensemble approach taken by the cast (Moore credits this in large part to star Dennis Quaid’s remarkable “generosity”) and the real effort it took to work in the Namibian desert for weeks on end (this even as, he adds, they stayed in hotels and hardly suffered off-screen). The team members grew close quickly and were sad when it ended. As Davis puts it, “Filmmaking is only for people who are into intense but temporary relationships, because it’s a lot like summer camp.”
Indeed, as revealed in the DVD’s decent 41-minute making-of documentary, “The Phoenix Diaries,” the movie explores isolation and loss, and the production set-up inspired similar feelings in its cast and crew. Giovanni Ribisi says that because it took two days for him to travel from his temporary home and the set, the shoot incorporated a sense of difficulty and remoteness, all “part of John’s construct.” Moore adds, “There are no walls here… If you don’t decide something, then it would be anarchy, it’d be chaos… [But] you don’t want people getting too comfy.”
This tension between comfort and lack provides a grid for the film’s other dilemma, that is, how to make the familiar (generic plot and character arrangements) seem new. This emerges in the first frames, as Frank (Quaid, who, Moore rightly notes, is a master of detail, able to do “expression, expression, expression… all undirected”) and A.J. (Tyrese) fly over the Gobi Desert, under Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” While Moore says he sees this song as a way to establish the film’s appreciation of the “mundane,” it is also a track that is by now much-overexposed via truck commercials. (Familiarity doesn’t always grant appreciation or identification; sometimes it encourages, as the saying goes, “contempt.”) These flyboys are working men, got it. And here they’re arriving to pick up a crew working an unproductive Mongolian oil-rig. When the boss, tough chick Kelly (Miranda Otto, whom Moore describes as “transcending” her own glamour), learns they’re essentially fired, she furiously spews unoriginal invective at the pilots: “This is bullshit!” At which point Frank only squints and lights a cigarette, as he informs her, “You screw up, you pay the price.” You can file that assessment under “words to eat later.”
Kelly soon learns that she’s been sold out by the suit in her midst, smug golf enthusiast Ian (underused Hugh Laurie, currently earning U.S. critical raves for his work in House). “These oil rigs,” sniffs A.J., “They attract the sorriest bunch of zeroes.” And within minutes, they’re all loaded into the cargo plane and zooming off into a monstrous sandstorm, where Frank’s serial decisions—to ride out, ride through, and then try to outrun the swirling winds—lead straight to disaster; even A.J. gives in, sighing, “You’re the boss, Frank.” Instructed to “prepare” the passengers, A.J. advises them to fasten their seatbelts. “If you believe in god,” he says, “It’s time to call in a favor.” Their crash is portrayed with sensational vexing effects. They’re some 200 miles off course, without a radio and without even the beginning of a way out of the desert.
As they argue over water, rations, and what to do, what to do, they also begin to bond, of course, especially when one lunatic marches off into the desert by himself, forcing the already-feeling-guilty Frank to traipse out after him, grumbling about his irrational passengers. By the time this kid hits him with a “hopes and dreams” speech (in other words, he’s not wanting to sit around and wait for help that’s probably not coming and insisting that they undertake a ridiculous plan to rebuild the plane from the half left in working order), Frank can hold out no longer. He agrees to rebuild the plane, if only to stop the “hopes and dreams” speech. That, and they’ve also found a briefly noted comrade’s body (he fell out of the plane during the crash-landing), apparently used for target practice by the next big danger: Mongolian bandits.
Knowing they have a couple of related deadlines now—dying of thirst or starvation, being shot by those ominous bandits who appear as looming shadows on the dunes—the crew begins working in earnest, more or less under the instruction of a fellow who’s just happened on the oil rig a few weeks before, the insufferable Elliott (Ribisi). He appears to have some engineering background, so they tolerate his arrogance to get the job done. The team comprises a pedestrian assortment: sweet-natured cook Sammi (Jacob Vargas), skeptical Jeremy (charismatic Sticky Fingaz), a couple of white guys (including an angry, redheaded Irishman [Tony Curran]), and a Saudi named Rady (Kevork Malikyan). As he’s always ready to offer up pithy observations (“I take time to thank God for everything”), Rady’s primary function appears to be reminding the other team members of their spiritual obligations.
Though it’s rational for them to work at night, Moore points out the impracticality of this aim. “What scared the pants off me quite frankly, was the ingenuity that’s going to go into the building of the airplane, if it’s at night you won’t see it,” he says, “So we had to come up with a way of saying, well, what would make them build in daylight?” The resulting plot turn is a catastrophe, a fuel explosion that restricts their capacity to see at night, literally. (Moore and Davis also remark that their stunt coordinator and crew set it up so the actors could do much of their stunt work, and so, that really is “Giovanni [going] off the wing.”) The nighttime shots are both pretty and convincing, in part because, as Moore confesses, he borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai, in particular a blue-filtered scene where one of the team members is murdered, by way of music video technique, that is, an unbroken song over top of the action, almost drowning out the dialogue. Davis and Godfrey recall their surprise at seeing the dailies of this scene, but it is easily the most striking in the film.
Much like Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines, Phoenix splices together traditional and current action movie clichés and rhythms. Here the motley crew comes to mutual respect, engages in thrilling encounters with menacing villains, and participates in music montages that fill time in lieu of plot (especially egregious: a welding-and-dancing jamboree set to André 3000’s “Hey Ya!”). Formula dictates that everyone who doesn’t die learns a proper moral lesson and they all pull together to ensure their mission’s success. It’s a yay-team kind of thing.