Feature Narrative Reviews

Pilot Error (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Joe Anderson

Writers: Roger Rapaport & Joe Anderson

Cast: Kate Thomsen, Larry Herron, Deborah Staples, Richard Riehle, Larry Herron

Running time:  1hr 52mins

A liberal filmmaker wants to make a film showing how cost cutting and incompetence by Big Business led directly to the deaths of hundreds of innocent customers. You want to enhance your reputation as an artist, but you want also to reach as wide an audience as possible to engage public opinion to bring about political actions to reform the industry concerned. You have a choice to make.

You can go down the formal documentary route but the problem here is that, even when you are exposing the most egregious cases of corporate evil, the audience for documentaries is relatively small. The alternative is to make a feature film focusing on the investigation and the investigator – the drama of the discovery will appeal to a wider audience. The filmmaker can then use the screenplay to critique an industry’s practices and suggest hoped for remedial changes. The problem here is the vast majority of an investigator’s work, looking at documents on computer screens, is, extremely boring to watch. A way around this, often used by mainstream cinema, is to home in on the character and human relationships of the investigator to engage the audience in their story. This is the approach that Joe Anderson takes in Pilot Error.

Given its title, it is no surprise that the subject of Pilot Error is alleged dirty deeds in the aviation industry. The film’s producer, Roger Rapoport previously co-authored a book on the causes of the 2009 crash of an Air France passenger airliner (Flight 447 Buenos Aires to Paris) into the Atlantic killing all on board. Rapoport co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Anderson. What they give us is a graphic account of the causes of the crash, the names of the corporations at fault have been thinly disguised; set against, what I assuming to be, a highly fictionalised version of the investigation that Rapoport based his book on. In the run of films that we review on IFL, Pilot Error is a big budget movie with first class production values that only occasionally creek at the edges. The cinematography (David Darling) and editing (Gene Gamache) have a sumptuous sheen – this movie looks good. The music is from an award-winning composer, Garth Neustadter, and is full of plangent strings swelling at appropriate moments – if you like that kind of thing.

The film’s difficult task is greatly aided by one of the best performances from a young actor I have seen in a long time – that of Kate Thomsen as the investigator – in the guise of Nicola, a rookie reporter at a mid-West US newspaper.

The film opens with her being awoken by a dead of night phone call – a man’s voice – there has been a terrible accident. Nicola learns that her best friend has died in a plane crash – the flight to Paris from Buenos Aires. We learn that her friend was a sort of journo mentor to her at her Milwaukee paper, and that serendipitously, the friend was working on a story about faulty maintenance and inadequate pilot training by, yes, the very same airline which she chose to fly with.

Again, felicitously, the friend has left a number of contacts for Nicola to carry on the investigation. Through a whole host of twists leading to an extraordinary final resolution, we follow Nicola as she takes on the dark forces of the aviation industry, the machinations of the French state and the duplicitous Gallic publishing world. The plot is essentially bunkum but what pulls the movie through is the quality of Thomsen’s performance (she is onscreen for almost the entire film) as well as a very sharp script – these make it easy overlook the more crazed coincidences and non-sequiturs of the overall storyline. The writers work in two sub-plots which intertwine and work extremely well – Nicola’s personal and professional development and her personal fear of flying. One of the great strengths of the film is the way that Thomsen manages to convey the changes in Nicola as she gains confidence as a journalist and as human being. As part of the fear of flying riff, we see Nicola taking a therapy course run by a pilot. Nicola develops a relationship with the pilot (a fine and engaging performance from Larry Herron). I liked the way Anderson portrays the relationship – we see a flowering of trust and respect without undue emphasis on the Sex Thing – subtly done. Professionally, there is some acute work on Nicola being forced to move from print journalist to vlogger – this is the end of the Noughties, the Neolithic stage of social media.

Anderson succeeds in the tough job of making the scientific evidential side of the investigation accessible and understandable. We learn that the crash was caused by a gizmo, known as a pitot tube, not being properly maintained, leading to it icing up and sending the wrong readings to the plane’s IT systems. The pilots, not being trained to identify the error, took the wrong course of action stalling the engines and crashing the plane. We then find out how the airline emphasised the pilots’ mistake – hence the title of the film – blame the pilot. I thought it was a shame that Anderson, who throughout the film is striving to make a Gallic connection for an American audience, did not make more out of the history of the pitot. Invented by Henri Pitot, one of the great figures of the 18th century French Enlightenment, it is an ingenious, simple device that measures the velocity of a fluid – Pitot developed it to measure the flow of the waters of the Seine. Only connect – it would have been a nice touch.

There are some frayed edges to the production. For some inexplicable reason, the opening scene where Nicola receives the phone call about the crash and her friend’s death is repeated about ten minutes into the movie – a baffling decision, simply odd. For the most part, the expert witness characters come across credibly but on occasion there are some wooden cardboard cut-out performances that undermine the film’s impact. It might be because of the time difference between Milwaukee and Paris or the director’s desire to emphasise the dark manouverings of some of the French protagonists but the majority of the French scenes are set at night. I am assuming it was not the director’s overall intention but the impression we get is that French people lead a troglodyte existence – America is the source of light and Europe that of darkness.

Anderson gives us two strange little scenes that seem to come from nowhere. When Nicola is grieving for her friend, placing red roses around her photograph, she is in some type of Jewish faith setting – the camera focuses on a chanukkah. Without any context this comes across as simply strange – it is as though Anderson is setting down a marker for the identity of a liberal journalist to go with the shots of Nicola on an exercise bike or picking up a book on yoga. On both occasions, Anderson has the camera linger on Martin Fletcher’s book Walking Israel – weird – maybe Fletcher is a friend of his or we are looking at some product placement that has just lost any Palestinians in the audience.

The biggest problem with Pilot Error stems from the director’s decision to fictionalise the names of the corporate actors involved. OK the long and tortuous legal process in the French is not yet over, in March this year, both corporations appealed the latest appeal – so presumably the decision was taken on legal advice. Throughout the film, AIR FRANCE is referred to as Air Paris, whilst AIRBUS, the European conglomerate manufacturer of the plane, is Atlas Industries. So, we get shown pictures of planes with Air Paris decoration and mocked up Atlas corporate logos. Given the omnipresence of both the corporations in Western capitalist culture, the result is that it the film teeters on the brink of becoming a gimcrack farce – a lot of the hard cinema verité work has been in vain – every time we see an Air Paris airplane, we are reminded we are looking at a pretence. It is deeply ironic that the filmmakers chose this cop out as the key theme of Pilot Error is that of a young crusading journalist’s refusal to be gagged by threats of legal action.

Anderson does however get some important messages across in a convincing fashion. The idea that aviation is a matter of national security, and the conventions and ground rules of ‘normal’ business can be broken at will by the state is well put. One of the aviation experts that Nicola interviews elegantly summarises the culture in which plane makers and plane operators have come to operate in and which the expert contends directly contributed to the Air France disaster – he explains that airlines are increasingly self-servicing and manufacturers are increasingly self-certifying. Pilot Error is dated as 2020 and it must have been a long time in gestation.

It might have been too late to include or because of the filmmakers’ timidity over legal action but the expert’s warning has been tragically borne out over ten years on with the Boeing 737 MAX debacle. Boeing is the other half of the passenger jet manufacturer global duopoly to Airbus – residing in Anderson’s American World of Light. Industry insiders argue that Boeing’s too cosy relationship with the government regulator and a failure to train pilots what to do when IT systems malfunction led to crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia with the losses of hundreds of lives – a tragic replay of the events of 2009. As they say in France – plus ça change.  

Despite a major cop out, and some of the production flaws, Pilot Error has given us a workperson-like movie that might reach a decent size audience, and which may get some people to question how the aviation industry works. As to whether lessons from the Air France catastrophe have been learnt and whether they will lead to any meaningful changes in the way the industry operates, there is a glimmer of hope in that Boeing was forced to ground the 737 MAX for an extended period of time taking a huge financial hit and to make substantial modifications to the aircraft – a triumph for the spirit of Ralph Nader. Getting away from air crashes, the message to take away from Pilot Error – look out for any future work from Kate Thomsen – an actor with a great promise.

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