Director: Steven Spielberg
Synopsis: After dying in an accident, aerial firefighter Pete Sandich is enlisted to become the guardian angel of his replacement pilot, Ted Baker, a man who happens to also be in love with his old girlfriend Dorinda Durston.
Overview: Perhaps because he tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, it’s always tempting to read Steven Spielberg’s films as his attempts to homage or re-interpret the filmmakers and movies of his youth. Jaws (1975) was his version of a 50s low-budget creature feature; Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) his 30s film serial; Empire of the Sun (1987) his David Lean epic; A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) his tribute to his late friend Stanley Kubrick. (I’ve even heard some people describe Lincoln (2012) as his John Ford film, a claim which merely suggests to me that these people simply know nothing about Ford’s work other than the fact that he made a famous film on Honest Abe with Henry Fonda.) I’ve always felt weary of these attempts. To me, they seem like desperate rationalizations to dismiss his natural talents on the part of critics who never forgave the man for inventing the modern blockbuster, thereby “ruining” the industry.
But for the life of me, I couldn’t make it thirty minutes into his 1989 film Always—a remake of Victor Fleming’s 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe—without thinking that I was watching his take on Howard Hawks. Aviators were one of Hawks’s favorite subjects; no less than five of his films centered on them, including the classic Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Ceiling Zero (1936), an under-appreciated treasure that essentially served as the former film’s dry run. Spielberg revised Fleming’s story of World War Two bombers in the South Pacific into one about aerial firefighters in (then) modern-day America. The tight-knit community of pilots, ground crew, and emergency personnel form the microcosm at the heart of so many of Hawks’s films: that of the isolated, insular community of devoted professionals. The actors all share a breezy, disarming familiarity and casualness; there’s a true sense that these people have lived together and worked together for years on end.
Consider one scene where Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter), the base’s tomboyish dispatcher, appears in the dance hall one night after a particularly harrying mission wearing a beautiful white dress. Everybody stops and stares in disbelief. Coming to, they all swarm her, asking her for a dance. Throwing up her arms, she declares that she won’t dance with anybody unless they wash the motor oil off their hands first. And as one, the mob rushes into the bathroom, yelling and joking as they scrub up. But what truly sells it is the man in the corner holding the towels on his arms like a starched maître d’hôtel, roaring in a ludicrous European accent: “That’s-a right! You wanna dance with-a my girl, you gotta wipe-a ya hands!” That man, of course, is Dorinda’s boyfriend, hotshot pilot Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss). He’s knows that it’s all in good fun; the men know it’s all in good fun; Dorinda knows that it’s all in good fun—but that it’s also her mock-solemn duty.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you watch Always for its plot, you’re watching it for the wrong reasons. The plot is the kind of warm, gooey melodrama that seeps into the more indulgent crevices of Spielberg’s oeuvre: after dying in a tragic accident, Pete is drafted into being the guardian angel of his earthly replacement, a wannabe firefighter pilot named Ted Baker (Brad Johnson). But much to Pete’s dismay, Ted and Dorinda fall in love. So Pete struggles between his newfound duties and his lingering romantic jealousy. I say the plot isn’t too important, and apparently Spielberg himself agreed. After Pete’s “resurrection,” the film sorta falls apart in the second and third acts, eschewing the tight plotting of the first 45 minutes for a loose series of vaguely interconnected vignettes. In-between scenes of Ted earning his wings and Dorinda overcoming her grief, odd sequences that don’t quite fit jut out here and there: Pete encounters an old hobo that can apparently hear him (raising all sorts of unanswered questions about the film’s cosmology); Ted resuscitates a school-bus driver having a heart attack; and most egregiously of all, Spielberg almost, but not entirely, ruins Ted’s quiet, understated final goodbye to Dorinda by heightening the tension with a clichéd scene of her trying to escape a crashed, half-submerged cockpit filling up with lake-water.
No, the film’s chief appeal is the opportunity to spend two hours with its cast of lovable screw-ups and goofs. If anything, the film’s a Hawksian hang-out flick going through the motions of romantic melodrama. Both Dreyfuss and Johnson ooze easy, insouciant charm. Hunter is equally delightful amidst her emotional highs and lows. John Goodman almost steals the show as Dreyfuss’s best friend and fellow pilot Al Yackey, brimming with full-blooded energy and happiness—notice how he can’t help but crack a smile when he realizes he’s about to be deliberately doused with fire retardant during Ted’s first training flight. And then there’s the immortal Audrey Hepburn in her final film appearance as Hap, Dreyfuss’ angelic guide in the next life. Spielberg’s love for her is apparent in every frame she’s on screen.
At worst, Always seems doomed for classification as one of Spielberg’s well-intentioned misfires à la 1941 (1979); at best it’s “minor Spielberg.” But there are still great things to be found in “minor Spielberg.” Always may not be a classic, but there’s not a drop of cynicism in the whole thing. Spielberg’s earnestness is infectious.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures