One of the more low-key buddy films of the early 90s, Air America revolves around the covert American airline presence in Southeast Asia that funnelled provisions and troops to US soldiers during the Vietnam War, as well as providing training from its base in Laos. For the entire war, this airline technically didn’t exist, turning Air America into something of a comic revision of the golden age of Vietnam cinema and music, from the pointed use of “Run Through The Jungle” for a comic chase sequence to a series of set pieces that seem designed to play as a gentle parody of Apocalypse Now. Against that backdrop, director Roger Spottiswoode outlines an odd amalgam of buddy film, adventure film and war film – with extended flying sequences – centring on Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), an Air America veteran, and Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.), an LA traffic helicopter pilot who makes the move to Southeast Asia after an altercation with his employers.
What ensues plays out as a surprisingly astute political satire, not just of American corruption and compromise, but of the myth that the Vietnam War was somehow more transparently or straightforwardly available on mass media than previous wars. As opposed to the imagery of Vietnam being relayed back to American televisions each night, the war in Laos proves that “a secret war is the way to go…no reporters, no TV. You just black out the war, like a pro football game. And you know what – we can’t lose!” It causes quite a stir, then, when a congressman visits the Air America base to look into rumours that the airline may be smuggling drugs as well as supplies – rumours that can’t possibly be confirmed or denied from the remote distance of the United States itself. The result comes close to a picaresque political thriller, as corrupt local officials scramble to put on a performance of legitimacy for the congressman, as well as convincing him that General Lu Soong (Burt Kwouk), a loose version of Laotian General Vang Pao, isn’t involved in the drug trade in any way either.
While these sequences are quite entertaining – thanks in no small part to the casting of character actor Ken Jenkins as the corrupt American Major – they tend to be subsumed back into the low-key vibe of the film as a whole, which subsists largely on Gibson and Downey’s screen time together. Given that the political plot can also be surprisingly convoluted and difficult to follow, Air America tends to work best when its two leads are left to just develop their rapport, which doesn’t happen quite as often as you might expect. Still, their best scenes together are a delight, and they work really well as an odd couple, partly because both actors already feel slightly out of place in the United States, imbuing their shared displacement here with an oddly domestic, cosy quality. Downey, in particular, is great at playing the ingénue and, after endless Iron Man incarnations, it’s quite nice to see him in this earlier, milder mode. In particular, his ability to blend mildness and disorientation is a real asset here, where it gives even the most urgent aerial sequences a comic, homely edge that seems destined for late night television screenings.
In fact, between the opening depictions of LA and General Soong’s ambition – which he finally realises – to open up a Holiday Inn in California, the whole film feels a bit Californian in its sense of pace and space. At times, Laos simply feels like a slightly more remote outpost of the West Coast, or another holiday destination for jaded Californians, even as the incongruity and implausibility of Americans treating Southeast Asia itself becomes a source of comedy as the film proceeds. Key to that comedy is the fact that Americans have no official presence in Laos – at least according to Nixon – resulting in a screwball-like displacement from the present moment that turns every utterance awry and devolves every conversation into a concatenation of cross-purposes. In the process, Air America increasingly resembles the picaresque frontier dramas of the late 30s and early 40s – I was especially reminded of Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings – and the way they poised the American empire at the screwy nexus between acclimatisation to and assimilation of everything that lay beyond its immediate borders.
Speaking of the United States, and of California in particular, the aerial aesthetic of Air America is largely driven by the spectacular opening shots of LA, in which the panoramic mobility of Downey’s traffic helicopter is pointedly contrasted to the gridlock mounting below. In the most elegant way, Spottiswoode emphasises the liberation of the sky, even or especially as Billy’s job necessitates getting as close to the ground as possible. It’s only a matter of time, then, before he gets too close, flying right down for an altercation with a truck driver during a highway pile-up, a decision that sees him fired from his position and forced to consider other career paths that might subsist on the shallow space between the ground and the upper air. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he’s in desperate need of a holiday, and that the lure of Laos and Southeast Asia seems to offer everything that’s lacking in his daily, smog-filled wanderings over the endless Los Angeles urban sprawl.
As it turns out, however, Billy’s career in California turns out to be the perfect preparation for his time in Laos, just as these breathless opening vistas of Los Angeles set the scene for a series of utterly brilliant flying sequences that capture the romance of the air in ways that feel utterly indebted to WWI and WWII aerial cinema. From the moment we arrive in Laos, the action never remains on the ground for very long, and even then it tends to be quite buoyant and barely grounded. The taking off and landing sequences are even more spectacular, starting with an incredible descent onto the side of a steep mountain. In fact, these pilots seem to feel most comfortable when taking off and landing, and most at home in the thin strip of air just above the surface of the earth. Too high to be brought down by terrestrial forces but too low to be really detectable by official aircraft and military helicopters either, they’re perpetually landing on makeshift surfaces or hovering just above the action in lieu of a proper place to land. Even when they’re forced to fly at high altitudes, Gene and his crew prefer to sidle up alongside mountains, or brush their tips for extra buoyancy, resulting in some quite startling and sublime aerial sequences and manoeuvres.
Of course, taking off and landing are also the most dangerous parts of flying, and yet the more flamboyantly risky these flight sequences become, the more domesticated and homely they feel. In possibly the best scene of the film, Billy wakes up after a long night out to find that the crew have hung his bed from the bottom of the plane, and that he is being skimmed along, still groggy and half-awake, about twenty metres or so above the ground. It’s a beautiful domestication of the zone the pilots all inhabit, and is mirrored in a later scene in which Gene and Billy are hanging, upside down, in a plane that they have been forced to land in the canopy – high in the canopy – where they commence a screwy exchange about who is going to drop to the forest floor first. It’s not surprising, then, that the planes also become more lived-in and homely as conditions grow more treacherous, epitomised by the first scene in which Gene and Billy fly together. Handing over the control to Billy as mountain peaks loom, fog descends and the radar system goes dead, Gene snuggles up in the backseat to focus on a colouring book, forcing Billy into the first of many mild ejaculations of incredulity.
In other words, for all the different genre cues on display here – adventure, war, flying, buddy – Air America works best when it imagines Gibson and Downey as screwball actors. While screwball was famed for its flamboyant hyperactivity, the greatest screwball icons also knew how to juxtapose their hyperactivity with a deceptive mildness, or how to use mildness itself as a way of capturing vast reservoirs of energy that have been comically suppressed. And that sense of suppression is very much on display here, with Gibson and Downey holding almost everything back for one of the mildest and quietest performances of their respective careers, even as they imbue Air America with a wonderful comic dynamism that has outlasted most of its story and supporting cast, and still feels quite fresh some twenty-five years later.