Air America (film)

Last updated
Air America
Air America (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Produced by Daniel Melnick
Mario Kassar
Screenplay by
Based on Air America
by Christopher Robbins
Starring
Music by Charles Gross
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Edited by John Bloom
Lois Freeman-Fox
Production
companies
Carolco Pictures
IndieProd Company
Distributed by Tri-Star Pictures
Release date
  • August 10, 1990 (1990-08-10)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$30–35 million [1]
Box office$57.7 million

Air America is a 1990 American action comedy film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as Air America pilots flying missions in Laos during the Vietnam War. [2] When the protagonists discover their aircraft is being used by government agents to smuggle heroin, they must avoid being framed as the drug-smugglers.

Contents

The plot of the film is adapted from Christopher Robbins' 1979 non-fiction book, chronicling the CIA-financed airline to transport weapons and supplies in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. [3]

The publicity for the film, advertised as a lighthearted buddy movie, implied a tone that differs greatly from the actual film, which includes such serious themes as an anti-war message, focus on the opium trade, and a negative portrayal of Royal Laotian General Vang Pao (played by actor Burt Kwouk as "General Lu Soong"). [4]

Plot

In late 1969, Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.) works as a helicopter traffic pilot for a Los Angeles radio station. When he breaks several safety regulations by flying too low, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration suspends his pilot's license. However, his piloting skills, bravery and disregard for the law are noticed by a mysterious government agent, who tells Billy that he can get his license back if he accepts a job in Laos, working for a "strictly civilian" company called Air America. It is readily apparent that Air America is a front for CIA operations in Laos.

Unemployed and unable to find work, Billy takes the job. In Laos, he is introduced to Air America's unorthodox pilots and aircraft, being taken under the wing of Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), a cynical and eccentric pilot and an arms dealer who uses official flights to buy black market weapons for his private cache. His dream, which he refers to as his "retirement plan", is to make a sale big enough so that he can afford to quit his job at Air America.

The next day, Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos on a "fact finding mission", to investigate rumors about Air America transporting drugs on behalf of Laotian forces. Major Lemond (Ken Jenkins) and Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant), CIA leaders of Air America, show the Senator around refugee camps, shrines, temples, and major cities in a careful deception to hide from him that Air America is indeed transporting drugs.

While airdropping livestock into rural villages in their C-123 cargo aircraft, Billy and Jack Neely (Art LaFleur) are shot down. The Pilatus PC-6 of General Soong (Burt Kwouk) arrives at the crash site and his soldiers load bags of opium on board, but leave Billy and Jack behind with Communist forces moving in. Gene and another pilot arrive and rescue them; Billy boards Gene's helicopter while the rest of the crew escape in another aircraft.

Billy and Gene's helicopter is shot down on the way back, and they are captured by a rural tribe. Gene notices that the tribe is using obsolete and unreliable guns and strikes a deal to supply them with better weapons. Allowed to go free, Billy and Gene retreat to Gene's house, where Billy is surprised to discover that Gene has a wife and children. Already disillusioned with US actions in Laos, Gene convinces Billy to quit his job with Air America, but Billy wants to get even with General Soong for betraying him when he crashed.

Meanwhile, Senator Davenport is losing patience with Lemond and Diehl, and demands to know who is smuggling heroin. Soon after their return to base, the pilots learn that during his search for Billy and Gene, Jack was killed and Lemond and Diehl claim that he was the ring leader behind the drug trafficking. Enraged, Billy purchases grenades on the black market and uses them to blow up the heroin factory, but guards see him running away. Davenport is still unsatisfied and demands more concrete evidence.

The next day, Gene finds a buyer for his arsenal, allowing him to leave gunrunning, quit Air America, and take his family out of the country. Meanwhile, Billy accepts one more flight before he actually quits. With co-pilot Babo (Tim Thomerson), he is assigned to transport flour to a refugee camp but they are instructed to divert to a nearby airstrip for "routine inspection". Billy immediately suspects a setup, and a search reveals several kilos of heroin hidden in the flour sacks. With his fuel gauge tampered with, Babo and Billy decide to crash-land on the same airstrip where Billy crashed a few days earlier, and use the wreckage of the previous crash to hide the smaller aircraft.

Gene, on his way to make his final, largest weapons delivery, flies in to rescue Babo and Billy after wondering why Billy can't seem to keep anything in the air. Billy convinces him to respond to a distress call from a refugee camp caught in the crossfire between General Soong's men and local rebels. Gene tries to rescue the United States Agency for International Development official (Nancy Travis) in charge of the camp, however, she refuses to leave without the refugees. After some initial resistance, Gene dumps the weapons to make room for the refugees, blowing up the weapons cache to cover their escape.

In the air, Gene and Billy come up with a scheme to sell the aircraft to give Gene his money back. Senator Davenport recognizes the setup for what it was, and the Senator threatens to reveal Lemond and Diehl's operation to Washington.

Cast

Production

Development

Director Richard Rush tried to develop the film in 1985, as the first comedy about Vietnam. Carolco Pictures bought the project as Rush wrote a script and found locations. Sean Connery was attached to play the older pilot, Gene Ryack, and the younger flier Billy Covington was at different times to be played by Bill Murray, [5] James Belushi and Kevin Costner. The project was sold to producer Daniel Melnick after Connery and Costner became too expensive. Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow to write a new script; and first hired director Bob Rafelson to work with Rush, but eventually hiring director Roger Spottiswoode. [6] Mel Gibson was cast for a reported $7 million, for the role of Ryack, and Robert Downey Jr. took on the role of Covington. Nancy Travis was cast as Corinne Landroaux, replacing Ally Sheedy, and Michael Dudikoff was cast as General Lee. [7]

Filming

The budget of Air America increased to $35 million as the production involved a 500-member crew shooting in 49 different locations between Thailand, London, and Los Angeles; operating between eight and 15 cameras at a time. Principal photography began on October 3, 1989, and continued until February 10, 1990. [6] The production was plagued by two earthquakes and a typhoon. The producers rented 26 aircraft from the Thai military, although some of the stunt flyers refused to perform some of the stunts, with 60-year-old veterans being drafted for the more demanding turns. PepsiCo wanted the filmmakers to use a fictional soda rather than show opium being refined at their abandoned factory. Therefore, the producers added a line about wondering if Pepsi knew what was going on. After previewing the film, six months after production, Gibson and other principals were called back to film a new ending. [8]

Soundtrack

Air America (soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by
Various artists
Released1990
Recorded1990
Genre Rock
Length33:45
Label MCA Records
Producer Becky Mancuso, Tim Sexton, Magstripe Entertainment
Professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic Star full.svgStar full.svgStar empty.svgStar empty.svgStar empty.svg [9]
No.TitleWriter(s)Performed byLength
1."Love Me Two Times" John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison Aerosmith 3:22
2."Right Place, Wrong Time" Mac Rebennack B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt 3:37
3."Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" Roger Cook, Allan Clarke, Roger Greenaway Charlie Sexton 4:15
4."Do It Again" Donald Fagen, Walter Becker Steely Dan 5:01
5."Free Ride" Dan Hartman Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer 3:23
6."California Dreamin'" John Phillips, Michelle Gilliam The Mamas & the Papas 2:38
7."Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland Jr. Four Tops 2:44
8."Get Ready" William "Smokey" Robinson The Temptations 2:38
9."Rescue Me" Fontella Bass, Raynard Miner, Carl William SmithFontella Bass2:53
10."Pushin' Too Hard" Sky Saxon The Seeds 2:35

Reception

Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson attending the film's 1990 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Mel Gibson & Robert Downey Jr. (211164059) cropped.jpg
Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson attending the film's 1990 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 13% based on 15 reviews, with an average rating of 3.39/10. [10] Metacritic reports a weighted average score of 33 out of 100, based on 13 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". [11] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale. [12]

Upon its release, Air America was embroiled in controversy over its treatment of the "secret CIA airline service." [4] After the Persian Gulf War began on January 15, 1991, the film was withdrawn from distribution in over 100 cinemas throughout Germany. [6] Air America received mostly negative reviews from critics. The film review in The New York Times by Caryn James, saw the film as a flawed "star vehicle". "This muddled film about a secret C.I.A. project in Laos in 1969 fails on every possible level: as action film, as buddy film, as scenic travelogue and even, sad to say, as a way to flaunt Mel Gibson's appeal." [13] Film historian Alun Evans in Brassey's Guide to War Films, in his commentary, was brief but pointed in characterizing Air America as a "... tawdry, unfunny war comedy." [14]

Some criticism was levelled at the inaccuracies prevalent in the production. The review of Air America in the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted: "... the comedy adventure doesn't feature any real heroes of that war, men like the Hmong pilot Lee Lue." [15] Christopher Robbins said the movie distorted his book's presentation of the Air America story, and historian William Leary noted "The exploits of CAT/Air America form a unique chapter in the history of air transport, one that deserves better than a misleading, mediocre movie." [16]

British film critic Andy Webb opined that Air America worked as an aviation film. "... on a small positive some of the flying stunts, and there are plenty of them, are pretty spectacular. In a movie which almost floats these moments of aeronautic acrobats (they) give an injection of adrenalin although by no means enough to save it." [17]

Box office

Air America debuted at number three behind Flatliners and Young Guns II . [18] The film ended up grossing $31,053,601 in the US and $3,243,404 in other countries for a worldwide total of $36,297,005.

Related Research Articles

Laotian Civil War 1959–1975 civil war in Laos

The Laotian Civil War (1959–1975) was a civil war in Laos which was waged between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government from 23 May 1959 to 2 December 1975. It is associated with the Cambodian Civil War and the Vietnam War, with both sides receiving heavy external support in a proxy war between the global Cold War superpowers. It is called the Secret War among the CIA Special Activities Center and Hmong veterans of the conflict.

Air America (airline) CIA covert airline from 1950 to 1976

Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 and covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. It supplied and supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, including providing support for drug smuggling in Laos.

Anthony Alexander Poshepny, known as Tony Poe, was a CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer in what is now called Special Activities Division. He is best known for his involvement in Laos with the Special Guerilla Units (SGUs) under the command of General Vang Pao, a U.S.-funded secret army in Laos during the Vietnam War and is often referenced as the model for Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now.

Edgar "Pop" Buell was a humanitarian aid worker in Laos. He worked as a farmer in Steuben County, Indiana until the age of 47, but following the death of his wife in 1958 he joined the International Voluntary Services, a precursor to the Peace Corps, which offered him a job as an agricultural adviser in Laos. Buell worked in Laos through the Laotian Civil War, organizing relief aid to refugees and isolated villages. He was forced to flee Laos in 1974 when the Communist Pathet Lao gained control of the country.

Vang Sue

Major Vang Sue was a Laotian Hmong fighter pilot. Recipient of the USAF Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew over 4,000 combat missions as a T-28 bomber pilot. Vang trained briefly with Hmong fighter ace Lee Lue before Lee was shot down and became General Vang Pao's preeminent pilot after Lee's death. He frequently flew 15 days consecutively, and often as much as 15 sorties in a day. Renowned for his daring and bombing accuracy, Vang was shot down by anti-aircraft guns and killed in October 18, 1972.

Allegations of CIA drug trafficking allegations of CIA support of and engagement in drug trafficking

The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been accused of involvement in drug trafficking. Books and investigations on the subject that have received general notice include works by the historian Alfred McCoy, professor and diplomat Peter Dale Scott, journalists Gary Webb and Alexander Cockburn, and writer Larry Collins. These claims have led to investigations by the United States government, including hearings and reports by the United States House of Representatives, Senate, Department of Justice, and the CIA's Office of the Inspector General.

Lee Lue Laotian Air Force officer (1935-1969)

Major Lee Lue was a Laotian Hmong fighter bomber pilot notable for flying more combat missions than any other pilot in the Kingdom of Laos. Lee Lue flew continuously, as many as 10 missions a day and averaging 120 combat missions a month to build a total of more than 5,000 sorties. Lee Lue was the leader of the special group of Hmong pilots flying T-28Ds from Long Tieng against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese positions. The group was funded by the CIA and was part of the regular Royal Lao Air Force, but took orders directly from MR2 Commander Gen. Vang Pao. He was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and killed over Laos near Muang Soui on 12 July 1969. At the time of his death, he had flown more combat missions than any other pilot in history.

Battle of Lima Site 85

The Battle of Lima Site 85, also called Battle of Phou Pha Thi, was fought as part of a military campaign waged during the Vietnam War and Laotian Civil War by the North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Pathet Lao, against airmen of the United States Air Force (USAF)'s 1st Combat Evaluation Group, elements of the Royal Lao Army, Royal Thai Border Patrol Police, and the Central Intelligence Agency-led Hmong Clandestine Army. The battle was fought on Phou Pha Thi mountain in Houaphanh Province, Laos, on 10 March 1968, and derives its name from the mountaintop where it was fought or from the designation of a 700 feet (210 m) landing strip in the valley below, and was the largest single ground combat loss of United States Air Force members during the Vietnam War.

Operation Barrel Roll was a covert U.S. Air Force 2nd Air Division and U.S. Navy Task Force 77, interdiction and close air support campaign conducted in the Kingdom of Laos between 14 December 1964 and 29 March 1973 concurrent with the Vietnam War.

CIA activities in Laos started in the 1950s. In 1959, U.S. Special Operations Forces began to train some Laotian soldiers in unconventional warfare techniques as early as the fall of 1959 under the code name "Erawan". Under this code name, General Vang Pao, who served the royal Lao family, recruited and trained his Hmong soldiers. The Hmong were targeted as allies after President John F. Kennedy, who refused to send more American soldiers to battle in Southeast Asia, took office. Instead, he called the CIA to use its tribal forces in Laos and "make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in North Vietnam with its Asian recruits." General Vang Pao then recruited and trained his Hmong soldiers to ally with the CIA and fight against North Vietnam. The CIA itself claims that the CIA air operations in Laos from 1955-1974 were the "largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA."

Long Tieng

Long Tieng is a Laotian military base in Xaisomboun Province. During the Laotian Civil War, it served as a town and airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. During this time, it was also referred to as Lima Site 98 or Lima Site 20A.

Raven Forward Air Controllers

The Raven Forward Air Controllers, also known as The Ravens, were fighter pilots used as forward air controllers (FACs) in a covert operation in conjunction with the US Central Intelligence Agency in Laos during America's Vietnam War. The Ravens pinpointed targets for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao and People's Army of Vietnam infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong guerrilla army.

Jerrold B. Daniels or Jerry Daniels was a CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer (PMOO) in their Special Activities Center who worked in Laos and Thailand from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. He was known by his self-chosen CIA call-sign of "Hog." In the early 1960s, he was recruited by the CIA as a liaison officer between Hmong General Vang Pao and the CIA. He worked with the Hmong people for the CIA's operation in Laos commonly called the "Secret War" as it was little known at the time. In 1975, as the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army advanced on the Hmong base at Long Tieng, Daniels organized the air evacuation of Vang Pao and more than two thousand of his officers, soldiers, and their families to Thailand. Immediately after the departure of Daniels and Vang Pao, thousands more Hmong fled across the Mekong river to Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps. From 1975 to 1982 Daniels worked among Hmong refugees in Thailand facilitating the resettlement of more than 50,000 of them in the United States and other countries.

Corporate Air Services HPF821

Corporate Air Services HPF821 was a transport aircraft delivering weapons via clandestine airdrop to the Nicaraguan Contras which was shot down over Nicaragua on 5 October 1986 by a surface-to-air missile. Two U.S. pilots, Wallace "Buzz" Sawyer and William Cooper, and the Nicaraguan Nationalists radio operator Freddy Vilches died when the Fairchild C-123 Provider was shot down by a Sandinista soldier using an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile, while Eugene Hasenfus, the U.S. "kicker" responsible for pushing the cargo out of the aircraft, survived by parachuting to safety. The aircraft was carrying "60 collapsible AK-47 rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots".

ChristopherRobbins was a British writer and journalist. He is best known for his 1978 bestseller Air America, a non-fiction book which was made into a film in 1990. It is about the secret airline run by the CIA for covert operations during the Vietnam War.

James William Lair was an influential Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary officer from the Special Activities Division. He was a native Texan, raised in a broken family, but a good student. He joined the CIA after serving in a combat unit in Europe during World War II, followed by a geology degree from Texas A&M. In his senior year, he was recruited by the CIA.

Operation Millpond, which operated from 13 March 1961 through August 1961, was an American covert operation designed to introduce air power into the Laotian Civil War. A force of 16 B26s, 16 Sikorsky H-34s, and other military materiel was hastily shipped in from Okinawa and held ready to operate from the Kingdom of Thailand. After this hasty preparation for bombing in Laos, the debacle at the Bay of Pigs invasion resulted in the cancellation of Millpond. The B-26s were returned to Okinawa. However, the precedent had been set for covert Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored air operations in Laos.

Operation Off Balance was a hastily planned offensive operation of the Laotian Civil War; it happened between 1 and 15 July 1969 on the Plain of Jars in the Kingdom of Laos. The Royal Lao Government forces in Military Region 1 of Laos had just been evicted from the crucial all-weather airfield at Muang Soui, as well as most of the Plain, on 28 June 1969. Hmong General Vang Pao planned a quick counter-offensive to recapture the airfield from his communist foe; it would kick off on 1 July, supported by 60 sorties per day of tactical air strikes from Operation Barrel Roll.

Project Waterpump was a secretive support operation by the U.S. Air Force to train and nurture into existence the Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF). The United States had decided to covertly support the Kingdom of Laos in the Laotian Civil War as the Lao fended off a North Vietnamese invasion. The nascent RLAF was seen as a force multiplier but needed pilots and technicians. The 40-man Detachment 6, 1st Air Commando Wing, code named Waterpump, was forwarded to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base for this training duty in March 1964. They would remain on duty through the truce of 21 February 1973. Their first hasty assignment was transition training to the T-28 Trojan for American civilian pilots; the resulting A Team would exist through 1967. The Air Commandos also conducted final training for Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) mercenary pilots; the resultant B Team would serve until 1970. Besides putting a polish on graduate pilots, the Waterpump detachment trained Lao pilots from scratch. The RLAF's high pilot casualty rate made bringing the RLAF rosters up to strength a long grind.

Campaign Z

Campaign Z was a military offensive by the People's Army of Vietnam; it was a combined arms thrust designed to defeat the last Royal Lao Army troops defending the Kingdom of Laos. The Communist assault took Skyline Ridge overlooking the vital Royalist base of Long Tieng and forced restationing of Royalist aviation assets and civilian refugees. However, Communist forces eventually receded back onto their lines of communication without capturing the base.

References

  1. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-05-27-tm-441-story.html
  2. Curry 2004, p. 158.
  3. Hamilton-Merritt 1999, p. 8.
  4. 1 2 Kevin Gilvear (October 10, 2004). "Air America". DVD Video Review. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
  5. Klady, Leonard. |"Ghostly Movie." Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1987. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  6. 1 2 3 "Miscellaneous notes: Air America (1990)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.
  7. Clarkson 2004, p. 225.
  8. Carrick 1998, p. 145.
  9. Air America at AllMusic
  10. "Air America (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes . Flixster . Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  11. "Air America Reviews". Metacritic . CBS Interactive . Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  12. "Find CinemaScore" (Type "Air America" in the search box). CinemaScore . Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  13. James, Caryn. "Air America (1990); Review: Film, Gibson as C.I.A. pilot." The New York Times, August 10, 1990.
  14. Evans 2000, p. 8.
  15. "New Vietnam film overlooks revered Hmong pilot Lue." St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 10, 1990, p. 1A. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  16. Leary, William M. (2014). "Supporting the "Secret War": CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974". air-america.org. Archived from the original on April 12, 2017. Retrieved April 11, 2017.
  17. Webb, Andy. "Downey's War on Drugs" The Movie Scene. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.
  18. Broeske, Pat H. "The Two Jakes fails to do land-office business." Los Angeles Times , August 13, 1990. Retrieved: November 23, 2010.

Bibliography