There are only two things wrong with Flyboys, directed by Tony Bill and written by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward. It doesn’t give you any sense of the period, which is the First World War in Europe as experienced by the American fliers of the Lafayette Escadrille, and it doesn’t give you any sense of actually being in battle. Other than that, it’s a lot of fun. As for the period, though the film is supposed to be based on real people and real experiences, the American fliers and their French leader, Captain Thenault (Jean Reno), don’t come across as young men of the early 20th century but of the early 21st. For one thing, they are a suspiciously multicultural lot. The token black pilot, Skinner (Abdul Salis), engages in skirmishes not just against the Germans but also against racism, and both battles have a decidedly inauthentic look about them.
We can tell early on that the film means to flatter our prejudices, rather than to persuade us out of them. When the father (Tim Pigott-Smith) of the spoiled rich boy, Lowry (Tyler Labine), refers to the war as a “noble conflict” and tells him that it is “time to do something worthy of your name” he couldn’t have proclaimed his villainy more clearly if he had uttered a racial slur. Thus it is only fitting that Lowry should end up sharing the 120-year-old cognac he has filched from his father’s cellar with Skinner. It also seems just a bit unlikely that Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), the French love interest of our tough Texan hero, Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), is remarkably free of male relatives over the age of eight who might have been expected to show some concern about her fraternization, unchaperoned, with the handsome American.
In general, none of these characters has the experiences or attitudes that would mark them out as being of their era except for Jensen (Philip Winchester), who takes pride in his family’s military tradition and sees himself as a “knight of the air.” Rawlings looks at him with the pitying scorn of our time, not his own. “What?” asks Jensen. “We are. We’re like knights.” Of course, Jenson is the one who gets the shakes after his first taste of aerial combat and whose eventual return to the air at a climactic moment, shorn of his knightly illusions, becomes a predictable sub-plot.
The lack of appeal to the others of Jensen’s self-mythologization as a knight is only one of several indications that the film has imported anachronistic post-war attitudes. Another is the character of Cassidy (Martin Henderson), the legendary ace who has outlived all his friends and who says to Rawlings in world-weary tones, “I was a lot like you: full of idealism, maybe even a sense of honor. But I realized that this war isn’t going to be won by anyone.”
So then, asks Rawlings, why fight?
“So I can see that as many of you as possible survive this useless war…. You’ve got to find your own meaning in this war. I would be real disappointed if more of our guys died in vain than the Germans.”
Even if it were not impossible that someone could have said this in 1916, it was so much more common for people to say things like it ten or 15 years later that it cannot but strike us as the facile recourse to hindsight that it is. Such fashionable disillusionment with noble-sounding ideals of honor and chivalry and patriotism has of course become a commonplace since then, but as applied to the events of 1914-1918 themselves it looks out of place. It’s easy to forget that we are looking at those events through the spectacles of the very different world of almost a century later. The movie is counting on the fact that there are lots of people, particularly in this movie’s target demographic, who don’t know this or who don’t care, but I do. I care quite a lot. Bad luck for Flyboys.
As for the lack of verisimilitude, this is because, like Trevor Rabin’s music which starts swelling with triumph long before our brave American airmen are even in the air, the movie is way overproduced and completely without any sense of the virtues of emotional restraint or of understatement. Of course, if you don’t mind live-action cartoons, there are plenty of exciting aerial shots to appeal to the kiddies. The burning of a Zeppelin, under attack by the gallant Yanks in the sky above Paris will provide a particularly satisfying thrill for the youthful devotees of cinematic explosions. In the same way, the love story of Rawlings and Lucienne, and Rawlings disobedience of orders to stage a thrilling rescue, will provide enjoyable passages for the girls in the audience.
But it may occur to some, even among the pre-teen set, to notice that everything is clear, everything is visible; everything about this very strange and foreign experience of a World War fought largely in the dark and the smoke by men who had little idea of what they were doing has been made simple enough for a child to understand it. There is no fog of war. The 3-D animation allows the film to do too much, to show too much, and so it doesn’t look remotely real. It’s another example of what is wrong with computer-generated animation. It looks impressive as animation, but it looks fake as reality. Again, the producers are betting that young teenage boys and girls don’t really care about reality. I hope they’re wrong.