There are certain movies that prove that existing is all you need to get a Best Picture nomination. The inclusion of stuff like The Blind Side and The Towering Inferno among the cream of the crop in their respective years can only be seen as a cinematic participation ribbon, the Academy’s way of saying, “You were popular enough, so, shit, here’s a bone for you.” As lucrative or even well-liked by audiences as they might’ve been at the time, these flicks are often hold up the weakest in retrospect, serving only to perplex Oscar trivia nerds as to how they could’ve made the final cut. You can probably tell that this is precisely how I view 1970’s Airport, an ambitious melodrama with a cast of thousands and a list of subplots to match. Since it’s considered by many to be the fire that ignited the following decade’s fascination with disaster movies, one might assume that it features some historical value or, at the very least, some campy good fun. But not even with irony-tinted lenses can one find much excitement within Airport, a film that takes itself entirely too seriously and, for as much stuff that goes down throughout it, is shockingly dull.
Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) has the woes of roughly eighty grizzled movie cops lounging on his shoulders. His wife hates him, he’s tired as hell, and, as the manager of a Chicago-based airport, his workload is monumental. But if all that weren’t enough, winter blesses Mel’s humble headquarters with the storm of the century, causing planes to get stuck in runway snowbanks and takeoffs to be delayed further yet. As Mel struggles to keep his customers happy and save what’s left of his marriage at the same time, the airport buzzes with the monotonous drone of multiple, time-padding subplots. Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), a pilot and Mel’s brother-in-law, deals with the news of his flight attendant mistress (Jacqueline Bisset) being with child. Little old Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) is finally caught after years of scamming free rides across the country. But most dangerous of all is D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), a man who’s gone insane and smuggled a homemade bomb onto his plane, giving Mel little time to save as many people as he can without getting them hurt in the process.
It isn’t the kind of movie Airport is that makes it such a chore but rather how it’s executed. For ages, Hollywood’s had a habit of trying to draw in viewers by stacking certain films to the rafters with stars, a practice that’s experienced its hits (Short Cuts) and misses (Valentine’s Day). Airport really isn’t much different than something you might’ve seen in Tinseltown’s golden age; in fact, Hayes herself appeared in 1933’s Night Flight, another aviation-oriented drama with a robust ensemble cast. But be it through the matters with which the characters have decided to occupy themselves or the pyrotechnics (instances of which are surprisingly low, compared to other ’70s disaster joints), Airport never comes close to stirring the audience’s collective concern. Writer and director George Seaton aimed to capture the essence of a bustling airport’s day-to-day operations, and by God, he did — every mundane, unexciting, bureaucracy-laden moment of it. Thrill as Lancaster encounters neighbors who don’t take kindly to their dinners being interrupted by a 747’s mighty roar! Gasp in awe as corporate bigwigs discuss plans for modernization! Soil yourselves in abject fear as George Kennedy tries really, really hard to get an airplane out of a ditch!
A cloud of “Who cares?” hangs heavily indeed over Airport. Hardly any character engages in actions that have a real bearing on someone else or aren’t weighed down by clichés. Are we concerned about Martin’s dilemma over whether to stay with his wife or his lover? Are Hayes’s antics just so gosh darn hilarious, as the movie insists on telling us every five minutes? Not really; Seaton serves up every side story in so flat and disconnected a fashion, we’ve no incentive to take a bite. But what of Lancaster’s Mel, the man at the center of these shiftless shenanigans? The flick certainly wants us on his team, especially when his wife is cast as one of those unbearable screen harridans who’s just shocked that a job overseeing a major metropolitan airport might take up some of her hubby’s time. But with a character this weathered and having to rattle off lines this rote, the only emotion we glean from Lancaster’s performance is pure, unadulterated misery. Airport is a film that’s made entirely out of distractions, only it’s missing something to distract us from, some semblance of entertainment we wish we could cut back to on a constant basis. But while there’s no such thing here, the flick does siphon some tension from Heflin’s bomber (in what amounts to an unexpectedly somber subplot) and laughs from Kennedy’s cigar-chomping mechanic, not to mention the only actor in this cavalcade of stiffs who looks like he’s having a good time.
For years, I’d been wondering if Airport really had enough material for the legendary Airplane! to parody, and now that I’ve actually seen the former, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It’s as stuck-up and sanitized as dramas can become, with its comic relief forced, its suspense missing in action, and its cast scrambling to find what humanity it can out of the self-important screenplay. Airport was a huge hit for its time, but learning of its success makes me wonder if there was an entertainment drought to rival the gas shortage back then.