05 January 2007

The Spirit of St. Louis (1957, Billy Wilder)

{58, B-, **1/2} | Museum of Modern Art, "Franz Waxman: Music for the Cinema"

• Not for Jimmy Stewart the strenuous, Oscar-hungry transformation of the modern-day biopic performance. Apart from dyeing his hair blond, he does precisely nothing to differentiate Charles Lindbergh from the generic aw-shucks Stewart hero—even though this film falls smack in the middle of his Dark Period (right between The Man From Laramie and Vertigo, actually), and even though Lindbergh was by most accounts a sullen, temperamental SOB. Of course, Stewart was also twice as old as Lindbergh was when he crossed the Atlantic, so maybe he figured there wasn't much point in striving for accuracy.

• Dude, where's my subtext? Nobody, including me, would ever mistake Wilder for an intellectual, but this film is really quite astonishing—almost refreshing, given the genre—in its stubborn superficiality, content to be about nothing but the myriad details of Lindbergh's achievement. Unique among Hollywood protagonists, this man has no paramour, no friends, no family, no apparent interests outside of aviation, and no inner life whatsoever, to judge from his occasional VO ruminations. Consequently, the movie feels less like a biographical portrait than like the solution to a complicated engineering problem.

• Speaking of which, nice work with the structure, fellas. When it became clear that the fabled flight itself would take up half the film's running time, I immediately wondered how on earth they could possibly make that an hour's worth of interesting—it seemed like it would be the lo-fi equivalent of Apollo 12. Anticipating Cast Away's Wilson, they do give Lindbergh a fly to talk to (perhaps the same one that would wind up fused with David Hedison the following year), but their canniest move is to reserve all the greatness-in-training anecdotes from Lindbergh's adolescence and early career, parceling them out as flashbacks between New York and Paris. In that context, you welcome them.

• To his credit, Wilder seems less interested in the transatlantic saga than in the various folks Lindbergh encounters along the journey, including the suspender salesman on the train who's aghast to learn that his seatmate is "a belt man" and the young woman at Roosevelt Airfield who volunteers to lend Lindbergh her compact mirror and gets a quick tour of the cockpit in return. (The latter obviously has an expository function, but the actress registers much more strongly than the information.) Even the businessmen who finance the flight and the mechanics at Ryan Airlines, played by anonymous studio workhorses, make a vivid impression; at times you could almost forget that you're watching History Being Made.


Vadim said...

Not for you the exemplary take-off sequence, interrupted only by a fucked-up reel change?

The real problem with Lindbergh is that, like you said, the man was kind of a bastard. It must have been hard to make a movie that didn't remind the public that he was America's foremost isolationist pre-WWII, or the baby kidnapping, or etc. No wonder Wilder wanted to avoid everything but the moment.

Adam Villani said...

I guess you can look to Philip Roth for that take on Lindbergh...