What is it with Hollywood and Airplanes? A Complaint from Ask the Pilot’s Office of Pedantics and Minutiae
March 1, 2013
SO I WATCHED ARGO, the Ben Affleck movie about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.
Those of us of a certain age remember the hostage crisis quite well. Until September 11th, nothing in post-World War Two American history garnered more media attention and public discussion, save perhaps for the Vietnam War.
I thought the movie started strong but ended weakly. The closing sequence, especially, was contrived and overwrought — not to mention historically inaccurate.
But it’s the airplane scenes that we’re here to talk about:
The Boeing 747 is one of the movie’s stars. The iconic jet makes numerous appearances in the period colors of British Airways, Iran Air, and — at the end, during that ridiculous escape scene — Swissair.
The 747 is the Empire State Building of jetliners. It’s no longer the biggest or the flashiest, but it’s still the grandest and most historically significant. And any movie set in the 70s, particularly one focused on what was such a huge international story, come on, if there’s gonna be an airplane, it has to be a 747.
I’m reminded of the line from that old Nick Lowe song…
“Seven forty seven put him in that condition,
Flyin’ back from a peace keeping mission…”
I don’t know if the British Airways jet that brought CIA agent Tony Mendez into Tehran really was a 747. And the Swissair plane that carried the six Americans to freedom was, in fact, a Douglas DC-8. But that’s not the artistic license that irks me.
What irks me, for starters, is that these airplane scenes were, quite clearly, digitalized fakes. Even a child could see this. The shot of the BA flight descending into Mehrabad airport looked like something an eighth grader had put together on his iPad. It was so goofily phony that it was hard not to laugh out loud.
The Swissair scenes, in the film’s closing minutes, were no better. What a waste. There’s the 747, front and center of one of the coolest moments of the past 40 years. Except that it’s rendered in a sort of CGI-lite. There’s one shot, of the plane’s left wing, where they didn’t even pretend to make it real. The intake of the number one engine is just a two-dimensional black circle. As the kids say, WTF?
As the movie comes to a close, we see the superimposed jet accelerating down the runway, chased along by a phalanx of Iranian military vehicles and police cars. These cars and trucks miraculously keep pace until the nose gear begins to lift. I’m unaware of any jeeps or police sedans able to drive 170 miles-per-hour, but who knows what secret weapons the Iranians had in 1979.
And by the way, what you see in Argo is a -300 series 747, with the extended upper deck and traditional (no winglets) wing. Swissair did operate the 747-300 for a time. The trouble is, it didn’t take delivery of the first one until 1983, four years after the events portrayed in the film.
That’s cheating a bit, I know. It’s really not fair that I can give them a pass for using a 747 in the first place, yet be offended by which variant was depicted. Here I am complaining because they used the wrong kind of the wrong plane.
Still though, if you’re going to show a plane at all, at least show one that actually existed at the time. Not bothering to do so is laziness. The choice of going with a 747 instead of a DC-8 can at least be argued on dramatic grounds. Going with a model that hadn’t been invented yet is simply incoherent.
You mean to tell me that with the millions of dollars lavished on the production of a major film, that Affleck and company couldn’t have gotten hold of an actual, chronologically correct 747 (it would have been the -200 variant) for a couple of simple runway scenes? Several 747-200s are still flying, and I’m sure the owners (cargo companies mostly) would have been happy to lease one out for a few days. Dozens more are mothballed in the deserts of California and Arizona, within driving distance of Hollywood, any one of which could have been painted up in the appropriate colors.
Speaking of which…
Earlier on, I was impressed that they got the period livery for British Airways exactly right, including the typeface used in airport signage. There’s also a very quick shot of the tail section of an Iran Air 747. Here too, though you don’t see it for more than a second, the livery is correct.
But then, with Swissair, they blow it. The colors shown, with the black and brown striping and the full red tail, weren’t used until 1980. They’ve got the wrong plane and the wrong paint job.
I don’t understand why flubs like these are so annoyingly common in movies. When it comes to cars, consumer products, hairstyles and clothes, Hollywood goes through considerable pain and expense to get their period details right — even ones that the average viewer wouldn’t necessarily notice or care about. But with airplanes and airlines, these standards don’t apply, even when the aircraft is center stage. We expect better, especially from a film as critically acclaimed as Argo, and certainly from any movie that’s intended to be read, however loosely, as a historical narrative.
Several movies feature key scenes that were filmed at airports. But the heck with Argo, give me 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon any time. Now that’s a movie. Plenty of drama and tension, with no over-the-top chase scenes or half-baked special effects.
Dog Day‘s final scene unfolds at Kennedy Airport, where bankrobber Al Pacino is captured and handcuffed against a cop car, his accomplice shot through the head. In the background is a noisily idling jetliner, which Pacino thought would be his getaway plane. The plane is a Convair CV-990, a now-extinct, four-engine jet that was an uncommon sight even in ’75. This peculiar rara avis is shown in the colors of Modern Air, a real life charter carrier at the time. (What a great name that was: Modern Air. Today we have nonsense like “AirTran.”)
Dog Day Afternoon was one of few major motion pictures to feature no music whatsoever. There’s no soundtrack, no backing score. Yet that closing scene is all about sound. Airplane sound. The earsplitting whine of the Convair’s early-generation engines, and the roar of unseen planes taking off.
— Ironically enough, I watched Argo while flying from Japan to the US — on a 747.
— Swissair ceased operations in 2001 after 71 years of flying. The national carrier today, Swiss International, is often and incorrectly referred to as Swissair.
— In the early 1990s I lived just down the street from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where Affleck and his buddy Matt Damon had been high school students.
FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC, SEE THE AUTHOR’S ESSAY: AIR TRAVEL IN ART, MUSIC, AND FILM