Air America by Christopher Robbins –nonfiction, 1979
Air America – (film) directed by Roger Spottiswoode, 1990
Here’s one for the books: a serious, well written work of nonfiction about heroic American pilots you can respect is turned into an unfunny comedy action movie about Americans acting like idiots in Laos, a country few Americans cared about.
Christopher Robbin’s Air America chronicles how the O.S.S. and its successor the C.I.A. secretly set up airlines to move men and materiel around areas of strategic interest, e.g. declared or undeclared war zones. The C.I.A.-chartered airline operated in support of U.S. government operations in Vietnam and Laos, from 1959 to 1975. At the height of its activity, Air America operated 80 aircraft, making it one of the world’s largest airlines.
While the book is a valuable resource, the movie of the same name is a worthless exercise. Although author Robbins fought for a screenwriting credit, he later tried to disassociate himself from the cinematic disaster.
The movie is about two Americans who fly for the C.I.A. airline during the so-called Secret War in Laos, which was no secret to the people of Laos. On one level, it’s a buddy movie about two wacky pilots. An old hand played by Mel Gibson, and a neophyte, played by Robert Downey, Jr., take on the challenges of flying the unfriendly skies between U.S.-backed Lao forces and Vietnam-backed Laotian Communists insurgents. Even if you liked Mel Gibson in one or more of his many roles, you probably won’t like him here.
You can view the movie on YouTube with Spanish subtitles:
We’re supposed to take interest in the sophomoric freshman pilot’s initiation into the ranks of the vaunted flying fraternity. We’re supposed to turn a blind eye to the veteran pilot’s sideline business of selling U.S. weapons on the black market to finance his retirement. We’re supposed to root for the pair to escape being framed as fall guys for higher-level Americans involved in the heroin trade.
We know that America’s warriors were disillusioned over our nation’s catastrophic failure in Southeast Asia. This post-Vietnam version of the Vietnam-era turns cynicism into silliness. After a few minutes in the cockpit with Gibson and Downey, we don’t care much about what they think or do, or what happens to them, even after they’re shot down behind enemy lines.
Central to the movie’s plot is the unscrupulous General Lu Soong, a fictionalized version of the real-life Hmong hero General Vang Pao. There’s a scene where General Soong’s aircraft arrives at a crash site to recover a drug shipment without bothering to rescue Downey’s downed pilot character. The Hollywood types who made this movie seem to have delighted in vilifying Vang Pao, who was living in exile in California at the time.
The movie also lampoons a fact-finding mission of U.S. senators who get the runaround when they come to investigate Air America’s involvement in trafficking drugs. A key scene takes us into a Laotian heroin factory but for a more compelling look, follow Denzel Washington as drug dealer Frank Lucas on a buying trip to the Golden Triangle in “American Hustler” directed by Ridley Scott.
Before the movie “Air America” is done with frat-boy antics in a deadly serious war, the two buddies deign to help an attractive USAID worker rescue raggedy refugees. Even in their saving grace, when Gibson and Downey swing into action we are unmoved.
The New York Times panned Air America as a film that “fails on every possible level.” Writing in The Times, investigative journalist Robbins said the movie distorted his book and falsely implied that Air America was in the business of helping the United States get heroin money to finance the Secret War – something he himself hinted at – and moreover, the comedy dishonored the courageous men who flew dangerous missions. One of the film’s directors responded, saying that the Gibson and Downey characters were “complex, sympathetic and ultimately heroic.” I found them inane, pathetic and ultimately idiotic.