If you were to walk into Flyboys halfway through, you wouldn’t have missed much. The movie creaks slowly into motion as it explores characters’ backstories and sets up the scenario. Based on a true story, Flyboys follows a group of young Americans in 1916 who engage with the French airforce in the Lafayette Escadrille before the States had officially joined the effort.
At first the characterization seems shallow; on the one hand we are presented with the French commanders, mockingly portrayed as bumbling and fatherly—a very poor match for the Americans’ well-drilled servicemen. On the other, we have the collection of new recruits, each arriving in France with his own trite history. They begin training, learn to fly, and accordingly start making tasteless jokes about combat. The dynamic of the group is immature—more American Pie than Apocalypse Now. A film’s score is usually unintrusive, but here it is ever-present, a constant reminder of the emotions the film-makers want us to feel about characters who have, as yet, done nothing to justify our sympathy.
That all changes, however, as soon as they enter air combat. Suddenly we—and they—come to realize how vulnerable these men are in their fragile aeroplanes, flying very low and very slow by modern standards. They fly over No Man’s Land and shells explode in mid-air around them; this is scary stuff. Unfortunately, the dialogue remains stilted-as a result, there’s still some time to go before we can be fully sympathetic with these characters.
In the midst of the shootouts, a love story develops between our hero (played by a very heroic-looking James Franco) and a French woman (Jennifer Decker). The linguistic difficulties begin to grate fairly quickly, but she is looking after her late brother’s children who, like all the finest French movie-children, are good for chorusing ‘Bonjour’, and ‘Au revoir!’ The romance, however, does succeed in offering a respite from the gruesomeness of the aerial dogfights and beginning the process of emotionally involving the audience.
This process continues as the story develops and members of the squadron are gradually killed off. Each of the deaths is handled gracefully as appropriate to the character concerned and resists cheap sentimentality. Finally, the score fades appropriately into the background, and we’re left with a believable and sympathetic set of characters.
The film is visually stunning, with many extensive aerial shots over ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ – all, in fact, filmed over south-east England. The effects required to realize the squadron’s flights and aerial combat are entirely believable and there is a degree of real humour (not just the tasteless stuff) provided by the expressions of the squadron’s captain (Jean Reno).
The ending feels slightly abrupt, but not because the film is short; it is a sign of how good the film does eventually become that you don’t realize two-plus hours have passed when the credits roll. There is a realistic lack of resolution to the separate story-lines as the film effectively ends in the air. However, that is surely a realistic reflection of these men’s experience of the end of the war: one minute they’re fighting; the next they’re not.
The film suffers intially from an overbearing score and poor early characterization, but once we’re able to engage with the characters, it becomes and remains an exciting and moving piece.