Spielberg: Always


WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Pete, like Donna Stratton in 1941 and Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun, wants to fly, specifically wants to fly in a WWII-era airplane.

WHAT STANDS IN HIS WAY? Two things. One, his love for Dorinda, who sees his reckless flying style as a flirtation with death. Two, death itself.

The narrative of Always is one of Spielberg’s few traditional three-act dramas. Its concern is Pete’s reconciliation of his conflicting needs and goes something like this:

ACT I (0:00-37:50) We meet Pete and Dorinda. He is a hotshot pilot putting out forest fires, she is the worrying air-traffic controller back at the base. We see his easy, boyish friendship with Al, another pilot, and we see the juvenile nature of his relationship with Dorinda. Pete, like Roy Neary, is still a kid at heart, and cannot seem to step up and address the demands of a serious romantic relationship — illustrated by Pete’s inability to tell Dorinda that he loves her.

Dorinda is sick and tired of watching Pete court death and gives him an ultimatum: take asafe teaching post at a flight academy or else give her up for good. Pete, seeing how serious she is, caves. He will be less so that Dorinda can have more.

But, in the manner of movies, first there is One Last Job to do, a big fire that breaks out and requires Pete’s attention. In this fire, Pete’s best friend Al finds himself in danger and Pete executes some daring moves to save Al’s life. Al’s life is indeed saved, but Pete’s plane explodes in mid-air.

ACT II (37:50-1:23:00) Pete finds himself dead, and in the company of Hap, a Mr. Jordan-like angel whose job is to coach Pete through his understanding of his life and his post-life duties. The job of a recently-dead person, it seems, is to inspire the next generation, to find an enthusiastic amateur and turn him into a genius.

Pete is assigned Ted, an affable hunk of beefcake who operates an air-delivery service. Ted, tired of his job, wants to be a fire-fighter like Pete, and is training at the same flight academy that Dorinda wanted Pete to teach at. And so Dorinda, in a way, gets her wish: Pete does become a teacher in a safe job, he just doesn’t do it until after he’s dead.

Pete doesn’t just coach Ted in piloting, he also tries to coach him in love — and fails miserably, which makes sense, as that was his problem in life as well.

Also at the flight academy is Al, who has retired from piloting (due, no doubt, to his brush with death) and is, yes, an instructor at the flight academy. As Pete could not reconcile his need to fly with his love of Dorinda, Al has given up flying altogether, lost his fire, so to speak, and lives in a state of docile ease, relaxing in a lawn chair as he instructs his charges, sipping the cream filling from Twinkies with a straw.

Al finds Dorinda working in what looks like the air-traffic-control room from Close Encounters. She has moved to an empty house in the flight-path of an airport — even in her hollowed-out state of grief, she must be near airplanes. Obviously, she is not yet over the loss of Pete. Al scoops her up and takes her to the flight academy with him.

Pete, meanwhile, has an episode with young Ted where they are forced down by a storm to an abandoned airport, where a crazy hobo who can hear Pete’s words but cannot repeat them clearly, instructs Ted to pursue Dorinda.

Ted comes back to the flight academy and, in a bit of improbable physical comedy, literally flies his plane into Dorinda’s front yard. It’s love at first sight and Dorinda starts to come out of her shell. This is, of course, not what Pete wants. His need is to inspire Ted to fly, not inspire him to fall in love with Dorinda. And yet, once Ted manages to bring a dead school-bus driver back to life, the deal is sealed and Dorinda is hooked.

ACT III (1:23:00-1:53:00) Dorinda and Ted have a big date as Pete glowers in the corner. Helpless to stop the romance, he instead contrives to have the tape deck play his and Dorinda’s song, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” This brings back memories of Pete and successfully cock-blocks Ted.

Pete complains to Hap that Ted’s romance with Dorinda was not part of the deal — he was supposed to inspire Ted to fly, not to screw his girlfriend. Hap explains that in order to gain his freedom from the world he must give freedom to Dorinda — that is, let go of his obsessions.

Pete re-applies himself to training Ted and turns him into an ace pilot, but soon there is another fire-fighting crisis. We think this is going to be the big sequence where Pete coaches Ted through the dangerous situation that killed him, but Spielberg turns the situation on its head and sends Dorinda out in a stolen plane instead. Pete now finds himself in the position of having to inspire ultra-green pilot Dorinda instead of Ted. He coaches her through the dangerous mission but the plane malfunctions and crashes in a lake.Dorinda drowns momentarily and finally sees Pete with her in the submerged plane cockpit. Pete finally tells her he loves her and sends her back to the surface and to life. She walks back to the flight academy and into Ted’s arms as Pete looks on with approval.

SOME THOUGHTS: As in The Sugarland Express, Spielberg here mixes a love story with an action story. As in The Color Purple, the scenes of simple human interaction are shot as carefully choreographed physical comedy, even slapstick. This makes the love scenes goofy, even juvenile, and detracts from their emotional impact.

As in Sugarland, the action beats are another story. They work like gangbusters. They kick ass. Spielberg puts the camera on the outside of the airplanes as they hurtle through burning forests, as though shooting from another airplane a few feet away from the cockpit of the plane in the shot, and it all looks shockingly real. The movie takes off whenever an airplane does.

Always is based on 1943’s A Guy Named Joe, which was about a WWII bomber pilot who dies and must coach a younger pilot (and is referenced in Poltergeist). Spielberg works hard to convince us the experience of being a fire-fighter pilot in 1989 is analogous to being a WWII bomber pilot, but it doesn’t stick. Everyone in the world had an opinion of bomber pilots in 1943, while I’m guessing few even knew there were fire-fighting pilots in 1989. The script even tries to acknowledge the disconnect, saying that Pete is risking his life for nothing, which is an interesting point but doesn’t help the movie’s argument.

Also problematic is Pete’s acquiescence to Dorinda’s requests, and then to Hap’s requests. He doesn’t find a way to reconcile his own conflicts, he only capitulates to the demands of the women in his life (and death). This turns him into not an inspiration but a martyr, and a smug one at that. “That’s my girl, and that’s my boy” Pete says at the curtain, as though uniting them were his plan all along, and I was reminded of Mr. Bloom in “Kick the Can,” Spielberg’s contribution to Twilight Zone. Like Mr. Bloom, Pete delights in manipulating the thoughts and feelings of his charges, giggling when his manipulations work, cursing when they backfire. The point is, Always has a protagonist whose desire is to inspire, but whose action is to manipulate, which makes Pete a Spielberg stand-in in ways I doubt he intends.

I also feel that a love story that must include a crazy hobo, a dying school-bus driver and an airplane crashing into a lake in order to justify the principles’ emotional shifts is probably working too hard.


7 Responses to “Spielberg: Always”
  1. teamwak says:

    I only saw this the once many years ago. I think its time for a re-appraisal

  2. rennameeks says:

    Spielberg works hard to convince us the experience of being a fire-fighter pilot in 1989 is analogous to being a WWII bomber pilot, but it doesn’t stick. Everyone in the world had an opinion of bomber pilots in 1943, while I’m guessing few even knew there were fire-fighting pilots in 1989. The script even tries to acknowledge the disconnect, saying that Pete is risking his life for nothing, which is an interesting point but doesn’t help the movie’s argument.

    It’s things like this that drive me nuts about many of Spielberg’s films. Basic flaws that he seems to KNOW are there, but can’t fix. Even if the initial fault lies in the screenplay, Spielberg could change it or get the writer to change it if he wanted to. “Hey, this doesn’t seem to be a strong enough motivation for our protagonist. Either find a way to raise the stakes or find a way for the audience to see why this is important.” It’s a recurring theme in his work and one which generally prevents me from truly embracing it. Sure, it’s a common problem in movies, but you’d think that as a master of manipulations, he’d try to do something about it, or at least something more than slapping a band-aid on it.

    IMO, it’s just not a high priority for him. He’d rather focus on other aspects of the story (yes, yes, including the visuals) than on such mundane details. Or maybe he likes the flaws….or just can’t think of anything better to substitute for what’s there.

    • Todd says:

      Or, you know, he could have set the movie in WWII.

      • rennameeks says:

        Considering how often Spielberg has used WWII as a backdrop for his movies, you’d think that he would have jumped at the chance to set a remake of a movie from that time period in its proper setting.

        Of course, I guess the Powers That Be would have been worried that it’d already been done. After all, even if the average filmgoer in 1989 hadn’t seen A Guy Named Joe, critics would have known and called him on it. Or maybe they just feared another 1941.

        Whatever the reason for dropping the WWII setting, it was definitely a mistake.

      • curt_holman says:

        Only Angels Have Wings

        Have you seen Howard Hawks’ ‘Only Angels Have Wings,’ which I believe is about air-mail carriers in the Andes? It’s been a while, but have very fond memories of it as having the snappy romance and civilian-aircraft-derring-do that ‘Always’ wanted to have.

  3. e_ticket says:

    I always found the “shopping in your sleep” bit quite charming.