FLYBOYS (Tony Bill, 2006)
FLYBOYS tells the stories of the first American combat pilots. Many of the volunteers had no prior flight experience when they went to France to fight Germany during World War I. Inspired by the true story of the 1917 Lafayette Escadrille, FLYBOYS follows a group that includes Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas farm boy whose family ranch was foreclosed; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a millionaire’s son out to prove himself; and Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a former slave’s son who had been working in France as a boxer.
FLYBOYS pays respect to the memories of the original fighting airmen and marvels at their heroism. The American flyers were not drafted or even fighting for their own country, yet they put their lives on the line every time they took to the sky. Such reverence in war films can lead to dramatic inertia, but FLYBOYS sustains a sense of wonder through its detailed depiction of training routines, military culture, and aerial combat.
Detail doesn’t always mean good. The dreadful GODS AND GENERALS was suffocated in part by slavish devotion to Civil War reenactments; however, FLYBOYS is most interesting when it shows the technology involved in preparing these young flyers. Training included being spun around in a chair and then walking a narrow beam to being pushed in a makeshift plane body on tracks and firing at targets. Their tools were perhaps even less advanced. They were given hammers to fix jammed machine guns and pistols to use as a means of avoiding fiery deaths. (They did not have parachutes.) This old-fashioned adventure works hard to stay true to the experiences that it’s slightly distracting when it turns to obvious movie moments.
The combat scenes are well executed, and the effects pass the believability test for the most part. My guess is that most of the action was shot with models—it doesn’t look like a lot of CGI is on display—and the illusion is much more realistic, save for a couple times.
As with any film constructed from a purportedly true story, FLYBOYS takes liberties with the characters. Most resemble real pilots or are composites but function as war movie archetypes. All the time goes into the meticulous documenting of what the flyboys did, leaving less for who they were. FLYBOYS rises above these flat characterizations to provide an often fascinating glimpse of the lives of early airmen.