First-Class Film Flights

(Above image source: promotional poster for ‘Up in the Air’)

Editors’ note: Two airline-related films, Catch Me if You Can (2002) and Up in the Air (2009), land on Sundance Now on New Year’s Day (the latter is currently available to Amazon Prime and Hulu subscribers.)

Each film tells an entirely different but compelling story involving airlines. While the first presents air travel as glamorous, the second suggests something closer to a purgatorial slog.

As millions of Americans prepare to brave airports this holiday, we asked aviation industry expert and author William J. McGee to comment on these two films — and the two dramatically different eras in US air travel that they reflect.

William J. McGee: Catch Me if You Can and Up in the Air were made just a few years apart, but bookend two very distant and distinct eras in airline travel.

Back when I was an employee of Pan Am in its final dying days, they used to tell us that our “blue ball” logo was second only to Coca-Cola’s own circular logo in worldwide recognition. Pan Am wasn’t the first US airline, but quickly grew to become the face of America on every continent.

Catch Me If You Can depicts real-life brazen imposter Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio). If you were going to pose as an airline pilot in the early 1960s, the dawn of the Jet Age, why wouldn’t you choose the sexiest of all airlines, Pan Am?

On other hand, Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is the perfect embodiment of the soulless state of air travel in the 21st Century. As he jets from one bleak American landscape to another – as a consultant who oversees mass layoffs — he gobbles up American Airlines frequent flyer miles, PacMan style. (The airline was the fictional Great West in the source material: Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel of the same title.) 

Forget sexiness, Bingham’s world is barely civil.

From Howard Hughes’s Wings (winner of the first Best Picture Oscar in 1929) through Airplane! (1980) and more recently Sully (2016), Hollywood has always loved aviation. But Catch Me if You Can and Up in the Air, in very different ways, capture something more elusive — how the romance of the airline industry can be grounded by hard realities.

William J. McGee, author of ‘Attention All Passengers‘ and ‘Half the Child,’ is aviation advisor for Consumer Reports. He wrote a monthly travel column for for 16 years and is a former airline operations manager.

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