Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.
Release Date: April 20th, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: James Stewart, Murray Hamilton, Patricia Smith, Bartlett Robinson, Marc Connelly, Arthur Space
n 1927, a young man flew alone in a single-wing, single-engine airplane, non-stop from Roosevelt Field in New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris, across the entire North Atlantic Ocean, covering over 3,600 miles. During the course of the 33 hours and 30 minute flight, that man, Charles Lindbergh, would inspire the world, proving the marvels of modern aviation. This biographical picture tells his story, though it aggravatingly begins by explaining the end, after the feat has already been accomplished – not that this is the kind of tale that would necessarily leave audiences guessing as to his success or failure (it’s hardly a spoiler), and certainly not during its original theatrical run in 1957.
As Charles Augustus “Slim” Lindbergh (James Stewart) attempts to sleep the night before he takes off on his extraordinary feat, he recollects how his ambitions started, back when he flew for U.S. Air Mail. During a blustery storm, Slim decides to fly to Chicago, unaware of a blizzard that downed the phone lines. This event requires him to parachute to safety, abandoning his plane to crash in the snow below. But since the banks don’t believe in commercial aviation, mostly unwilling to fund upgrades, his vessel wasn’t in the best of shape anyway. Yet Lindbergh has bigger goals: he needs to gather some prominent Missouri businessmen to invest $15,000 (a fortune in the era) to purchase a plane from the Columbia Aircraft Corporation for a non-stop flight over the ocean – a transatlantic race that would win him $25,000, alongside plenty of international attention.
Curiously, numerous scenes are devoted to generating a level of uncertainty around Slim’s ultimate success, which is a strange concept considering that the film’s opening already declared his record-breaking exploit. Even a conversation about the various competitor pilots who are well on their way to planning their own, faster flights is an oddity since, again, the outcome is already known. When Charles journeys to New York, only to discover hiccups in the acquisition of a craft, he changes course to San Diego, where he’ll have a plane built from scratch – but this is also a minor deviation that unequivocally doesn’t create tension. History has already proven Lindbergh a winner.
“Maybe planes aren’t up to it.” From the construction of the bird (dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis), to test flights, to bad omens of fellow aviators perishing during their own trials, to last-second news about a Paris-to-New-York voyage already in progress, to navigational hazards, to physical exhaustion, no individual incident musters much anticipation. Nevertheless, the picture does a decent job of chronicling the historical details leading up to Lindbergh’s trip, as well as the process and procedure for the journey itself, as based on Lindbergh’s own book, adapted for the screen by writer/director Billy Wilder (a rare, straightforward biography from the auteur, released after the airy comedy “The Seven Year Itch”). It ultimately serves as a simple history lesson.
Disappointingly, however, this is a dragging, one-man show, featuring only a couple of other actors with any notable dialogue (one of whom, Murray Hamilton, doesn’t even show up until 90 minutes in), and devoid of a love interest (there’s essentially only a single woman who appears onscreen, and she isn’t given a name, though she gets some clever lines) or any sort of consequential conflicts (thanks, once again, to the very evident results). This, of course, makes the more than two-hour runtime feel especially sluggish (perhaps never more evident than when Lindbergh talks to a stowaway fly and marks down calculations in his claustrophobic cockpit), despite a flashback scene or two of comic relief, additional backstory moments, and a rousing finale. The monumental nature of the achievement is clear, but the necessity and effectiveness of this painfully slow production are definitely in question. Audiences might end up almost laughably comparable to Lindbergh as he struggles desperately to stay awake during his seemingly interminable flight.
– Mike Massie