What money can't buy 

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Scenes from the IMAX documentary Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag.

'Fighter Pilot' spares no expense on aerial fireworks, but fails to produce the right stuff

Whoever said "bigger is not necessarily better" was not far off the mark when it comes to IMAX films. IMAX is about in-your-face, saccharin "info-tainment" that might hold your attention for approximately half the time of a normal Hollywood feature.

One of the newest offerings at IMAX Rivercenter is the documentary Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag. Sponsored by the (recently) beleaguered Boeing Corporation with the cooperation of the United States Air Force, Fighter Pilot strives to portray a slice of life during an uber-realistic wargame situation called "Red Flag," the last leg of training a pilot receives before being thrust into the shock and awe of real combat. The story follows Captain John Stratton, a young pilot with enough hero-worship for his World War II pilot grandfather to pull himself through some of the more challenging levels of the training exercise.

Fighter Pilot succeeds in setting up the exercise and its players (albeit with a vapid gung-ho attitude), comprised of a motley crew of pilots from all over the globe, each with his own type of flying machine. The American F-15s, the British Harriers, the Canadian Hornets, and the German Tornadoes are all on parade. The crisp IMAX format lends itself to showcasing some very impressive aerial shots to dizzying effect. There are tinges of suspense and brief moments of intrigue in seeing the military's operation and the necessary mindset of a pilot. The most memorable scene captures the seemingly mundane task of pilots walking single-file, side-by-side along the runway each morning looking for stray pebbles. Small rocks can get sucked into a jet's engine, causing an accident before the exercises have even begun. It is the little things that matter here and the idea conveyed is that the enemy is not always another person.

The man who wrought such IMAX classics as Beavers and Mark Twain's America in 3D, director Stephen Low has made one of the most expensive military recruitment videos ever, permeated with a hokey "be part of the team" feel complete with a champagne toast. The only thing missing is a war bonds ad.

Even though the film is only 45 minutes long it just doesn't have the right stuff and after the 20-minute mark your ejector-seat button will begin to blink. Despite the impressive aerial feats, it's just not a very interesting piece of work. POW! ZIP! ZAM! Dud. There are black and white documentaries from the 1960s that can be shown on a 13-inch television and are still more engaging than this film. After all is said and done, Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag is really a harmless bit of puff with admirable subject matter and mediocre cinematic follow-through, funded by a questionable corporation. Maybe Boeing was over-billing Uncle Sam to foot the bill for this feature.

By J. Michael Owen

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March 25, 2020


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