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Airport (1970)

Airport (1970)
June 15, 2012 - 7:30 pm

Directed by George Seaton

Writer-director George Seaton’s explosive hit was one of film history’s great game changers, launching a new screen genre, the disaster epic, and bringing a renewed focus on the spectacular. Specifically, Airport confronted viewers with the spectacle of a disaster that they themselves might experience in their own lives, offering a new frisson to moviegoers while narrowing the gap between the Hollywood movie and the thrill ride.

The story, adapted from Arthur Hailey’s best-selling novel, concerns a bombing aboard a transatlantic flight, and the passengers, crew, and airport officials on the ground who strive to bring the crippled craft safely home. Drama emerges from reference to the countless people who daily pass through an airport, mindless of its systems and occasional breakdowns, and by personifying the responsible professionals there as deeply human—with flaws, conflicts, and desires that intersect with their life-or-death functions.

Not the first film about a potential plane crash, Airport benefits from the combination of Hailey’s well-researched portrayal of a modern bureaucracy and the talents of both Ross Hunter—fabulously successful producer of women’s pictures, melodramas and sex comedies at Universal—and the versatile hyphenate, Seaton, recently arrived at the studio and equally adept at thrillers and family dramas. Assembling an impressive all-star cast—a move out of step with the iconoclastic smaller films of the times—Seaton and Hunter keep the hefty project aloft and humming for more than two hours. As the airport manager Burt Lancaster and airline public relations officer Jean Seberg work to avert disaster while negotiating personal attraction, stewardess Jacqueline Bisset and married pilot Dean Martin enact a similar drama aboard the endangered airplane. George Kennedy, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton and Helen Hayes (who won an Oscar for her performance) offer impressive character turns.

The film’s technical details, special effects and wide-screen compositions give it a distinctly modern sheen, trending toward the bigger-budget, event-driven Hollywood still to come. Dismissed by many critics—even Hunter jokingly called it “a soap opera on wings,” adding, “it’s not art, it’s fun”—Airport became Universal’s biggest-ever box-office hit until Jaws shattered that record in 1975.

—Shannon Kelley

Ross Hunter Productions. Producer: Ross Hunter. Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey. Screenwriter: G. Seaton. Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo. Editor: Stuart Gilmore. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy.

35mm, color, 137 min.