Review – On a Wing and a Prayer

On A Wing And A Prayer poster

Overview

Synopsis When travelling with his family on a small engine aircraft, passenger Doug White finds himself needing to land the plane when the pilot unexpectedly becomes incapacitated mid-flight. Based on a true story.

Length 1 hour, 42 minutes

Release Date April 7, 2023

 

Rating PG

Distribution Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (theatrical), Amazon Prime Video (VOD), United Artists Releasing (video)

Directing Sean McNamara

Writing Brian Egeston

Composition Brandon Roberts

Starring Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Jesse Metcalfe

On a Wing and a Prayer is a dramatic retelling of the White family’s terrifying aviation event dubbed the “Easter miracle”, and in a stroke of good planning it was released over the recent Easter holiday period on Amazon Prime. It is a story the family have been reluctant to share with media outlets as the circumstances have never felt quite right for them. Yet when they were approached with the idea of presenting their harrowing journey within the lens of a faith-based film, they knew the opportunity was God-led, bringing some sense of narrative closure to what was a very spiritual experience for all involved. After holding out for fourteen years, have the filmmakers done this story justice?

Does On a Wing and a Prayer do Doug and Terri White’s story justice?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The majority film centers around the nail-biting problem of instructing an inexperienced member of the public to land a plane. There are multiple discussions of worst-case scenarios involving the plane crashing and burning, and falling and killing other innocent lives. Meanwhile the thought of sending the plane out over the ocean as a suicide ditch is considered. Multiple characters die from heart failure—one is shown on screen while the others happen off camera. One character enters into anaphylactic shock and requires an EpiPen. Multiple shots of a plane flying in precarious conditions.

Language/Crude Humor: None.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcoholic beverages at a bar, to the extent they have a hangover the next day. It is questionable whether they might still be illegally under the influence whilst at work. An EpiPen is shown being jabbed into a thigh.

Sexual Content: A married couple are shown kissing and throwing themselves onto a bed. At a bar, two characters discuss hooking up. An unmarried couple kiss and embrace.

Spiritual Content: A Christian-centered funeral service is shown. A character has a crisis of faith with God. Characters pray to God multiple times and refer to Him in reverence.

Other Negative Content: A character is scolded for breaking aviation laws regarding cell phone usage in confidential areas. Children trespass and shrug off the consequences, believing their young age will prevent them from punishment.

Positive Content: Several healthy relationships are shown. The film honors both those that tragically pass, and those that miraculously survive, emphasizing the value of life. The story fosters a belief in the importance of family, not giving up, believing in God to take over, and cherishing the time we have with each other.

Review

There are many things I geek out about, though it feels like the geekiest interest I’ve ever fostered was a love towards the television series, Air Crash Investigations. It wasn’t something I actively followed, rather it happened to air when I had time at home to spare, and I found myself glued to the docu-drama every week. Many years later, while I cannot recall the exact episode, there was one lesson I learned that has stuck with me until this day. After one particular tragic airline crash, two survivors shared their experience to camera. One viewed their survival as a second lease on life, and eventually came to believe that God had a divine hand in sparing them from death, forever grateful and becoming a devout Christian. The other felt the opposite; they lost their faith in God as they refused to believe that He would allow such a tragedy to occur. In that moment I realized that two people can experience the same event yet can come to vastly different conclusions—a realization I quickly tucked away in the back of my mind for safe keeping, and it’s a phenomenon I’ve remembered from time to time when conversing with others, especially when we can’t seem to agree on something we’ve both shared.

Interestingly enough, the memory of that useful lesson has popped up once again while watching On a Wing and a Prayer. We can all watch the same movie, but some viewers will see God’s loving hand, whilst others may question whether God was there at all (or was malevolent).

To get to that moment, first there’s a rather tedious opening act to endure. The script is clunky and lacks the expertise in smoothing over the narrative story beats that need to occur in order for the plot to work, and it lacks the dynamism to turn those necessary conversations and developments into something engaging for cinema. Essentially, the film needs to introduce the audience to these characters, but they’re established through very mundane, uninspired dialogue. Not every scene progresses the plot or provides viewers with new information, leaving the story to fumble through the first act and reeking of B-grade movie vibes.

The cast don’t deliver their best. Heather Graham struggles to find her character as a pragmatic, hopeful and helpful wife, with her emotional responses occasionally being too upbeat in moments that required more seriousness. Dennis Quaid, now seemingly a regular for this genre, muddies the intention behind his acting; sometimes his anxiety also reads as drunkenness or the first phase of congestive heart failure. For the rest of the cast, the script hasn’t done them favours, with dialogue or actions that are flat or cliché.

Yet as soon as the family hops onto the plane, the film begins to soar. The pacing and tension nicely build, similar to some of the best episodes of Air Crash Investigations. There are many moments that are incredibly cheesy, but the story still holds its charm, and as a result, the movie still hits its emotional goals. It’s an enjoyable, nail-biting experience, one that managed to scratch that itch while waiting for more aviation content.

If I had left things there, I would have rated the film 8/10, as I did enjoy myself. I’m their target demographic. It’s very much a B-movie, but it won me over regardless as a guilty pleasure. However, there were many things that niggled my brain, and after finishing the film, I spoiled things and researched the real-life event. After reading the true account of the incident, the film’s fun glow simmered and the flaws became all the more apparent, slipping my score down to a 6/10, which is essentially my “flawed but enjoyable” range anyway.

In truth, the actual event was only a short affair, with the whole ordeal lasting under an hour. It’s a piece of aviation history that offers a great core conundrum for a script to flesh out and develop, though I don’t envy the screenwriters here. For a film to be successful, the narrative needs to follow a certain structure (although there are rare exceptions). There are rules to storytelling, just how there are rules to music; you can’t just whack together a bunch of notes and expect brilliance without also factoring in tempo, keys, melodies, etc. There’s a certain skill when it comes to adapting a true story, as the messy randomness of life is essentially needed to be streamlined and neatly packaged into an easily consumable and familiar story structure.

There are three ways I can imagine a screenwriter may approach the story behind A Wing and a Prayer. The event is short enough to have been shown in real time, and then featured an extended opening and concluding act to pad the runtime out to feature film length. Another option may have been to, once again, stay close to the original events, and depict the importance and personal meaning behind the characters’ actions through the use of flashbacks. The last option is to invent and manufacture incidences in order for the real-life story to more closely resemble that of a movie’s necessary plot structure.

Screenwriter Brian Egeston chose the latter and the approach becomes problematic. On a Wing and a Prayer hosts a number of supporting characters and it’s only natural to wish to include character arcs for all of them. While it does round out the story, it is a narrative that’s stretched to its furthest reaches, and at times those plot developments are too cheesy to be taken seriously. The worst example involves two children that follow the news as it unfolds. One might expect their story to come full circle, although unlike many of the other characters, this duo isn’t based off anyone in real life, so their only purpose is to relay and dumb down the aviation jargon for the audience. However, considering most of the event involves the passing along of critical information to another party, their roles are superfluous and ultimately annoying.

One character that’s sadly underdeveloped despite the genre is that of God. Granted, He’s a difficult character to portray. He tends to shine through the most when there are circumstances outside of a person’s control, where they realize the limitations of humanity and the true fragility of existence. On the day of Doug White’s flight, the weather was uncharacteristically perfect, with little to no wind. That factor was immensely helpful for White’s predicament.

In the film, however, every complication imaginable is added to the screenplay in order to pad out the runtime. It gets to the point where you question whether God is trying to kill off this family. I’m not sold on the idea that this fictious reimagining of the events is beneficial to the story’s over all message. This is where you are going to get a split of opinion between viewers. Some could argue the insurmountable odds only deepens the amount of trust we must have in God, as White is effectively beaten down until he had nowhere else to turn apart from divine intervention. On the other hand, one could wonder what God really did to assist the situation, as the movie’s events could be interpreted as an amazing feat of human perseverance, with characters such as Kari Sorenson being the real hero of the piece. These deviations from the true story may undermine the movie’s core themes despite their superficial role in adding much-needed drama to an otherwise fairly straight-forward series of events. Most frustratingly, when the credits roll and the conclusion unveils real footage, what is shown and described does not line up with what we saw in the film, really dampening the film’s spirit right at the end. It just feels careless at that point.

Another addition that’s unintentionally detrimental is the movie’s portrayal of prayer. It’s natural for a screenwriter to feel the urge to give all of their characters something to do. Doug White wasn’t the only one in the plane—he was travelling with his wife and two daughters as well. So during the turbulent trip, in the script those characters are given their own obstacles to overcome, with some being more ridiculous and contrived than others. However, in real life, their adventure wasn’t nearly as eventful. They spent the flight sitting in their seats, praying together. While it’s understandable that the act of praying isn’t the most cinematic of actions a character can perform, we must start to mentally move away from the idea that praying is equivalent to “doing nothing”. Especially in today’s times where “thoughts and prayers” is a phrase that’s now synonymous with useless behaviour. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather prefer people’s thoughts and prayers compared with abject apathy.

It’s an interesting topic because you can see where the disdain towards prayer comes from. It’s easy to pray, but it’s much harder to actively become part of the physical solution if one is available. It is important to have your actions line up with your words. As Christians, we are called to prayer, but occasionally we are also called to devote ourselves in other ways to the cause we are bringing to God. However, that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t important. Praying is an active action in itself. We must disentangle our mindset from the secular worldview that praying is useless. If you have a relationship with God, then you know that it is not something meaningless. When you have Christian characters doing everything aside from praying, it does sadly unintentionally support the idea that prayer is a lackluster action. On and a Wing and a Prayer had the opportunity to show (as hard as it is in cinema) the power of prayer, though it was one that was ultimately missed.

The screenwriter’s fingerprints can be seen all throughout the film, and a lot of the creative decisions make a lot of logical sense from a filmmaking perspective. However, this time the film’s need for a certain narrative pattern and story structure comes at the expense of really demonstrating God’s full glory. Resisting that urge to change up certain details and instead finding other ways to bring those events to life on screen may have resulted in better thematic returns. Yet its heart is still in the right place, and the film is deeply respectful of all the people it depicts, including those that are no longer with us. For those looking for a thrilling retelling of an aviation story with some Christian elements thrown in, then On a Wing and a Prayer is worth a look.

Positives

+ Nail-biting tension
+ Good pacing once the second act begins
+Entertaining despite flaws

Negatives

- Not the greatest performances from the cast
- Changes from the real life events may undermine the Christian message
- Some added complications are unnecessary
- Cheesy

The Bottom Line

On a Wing and a Prayer has its faults, but despite the cheese, it does soar above its negative elements and proves to be a tense, entertaining outing.

 

6.1

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

1 Comments

  1. John Burkr on July 1, 2023 at 12:40 am

    I agree that some characters are superfluous , but
    the remote pilot “steering” the plane scenes were engrossing and interesting. Much better movie than the two actions features I started and then turned off after 15 minutes, this held my attention closely.

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