On a Wing and a Prayer Makes a Life-Altering Event Deadly Boring

Movies Reviews Dennis Quaid
On a Wing and a Prayer Makes a Life-Altering Event Deadly Boring

In the final act of On a Wing and a Prayer, Doug (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Terri (Heather Graham) are trying to land their private plane in the eye of a gray, rumbling storm, armed with a cursory knowledge of its mechanics and the body of their dead pilot. It is at this moment that Terri turns and encourages her husband: “We’ve made it through bigger challenges than this! We can make it!” It is a testament to the film’s drab, lifeless understanding of these people and the world they move through that this line—bizarre in its implication (have they?)—sparks nothing but our vague concern. 

On a Wing and a Prayer follows the real-life White family, who have to overcome the kind of obstacle typically reserved for people’s anxiety dreams. There is an easily accessible stress bound up in the family’s experience. Doug, Terri and their two daughters have to place their trust in a shifting group of faceless strangers, accessible only as crackling voices offering non-committal instructions, yet these stakes are rendered meaningless by director Sean McNamara’s muddled vision. Each of these converging storylines feel isolated and emotionally removed from the deadly situation at hand. McNamara translates this can’t-miss action set-up into a few thinly drawn characters talking to one another in urgent tones over the phone. 

All of this could be saved, or at least made compelling, by willing performers. Unfortunately, the cast struggles to temper the degrees of urgency to match the given circumstances, as is made obvious by the White family’s introduction at a barbeque contest. The central cast are positioned amidst a crowd of locals, but there is a strange vacuum that pulls these characters together and repels any passers-by. It is an unsettling format that breeds inhuman dialogue, mostly from Doug’s youngest daughter. Bailey (Abigail Rhyne) enters the scene by yelling to her insulated audience about how great her family is. Such a statement is delivered with the verve and commitment of a stand-up comic, but the people at the fair mill around her, ignoring her with startling intensity.

On a Wing and a Prayer does contain hints of a more interesting premise, charting the inter-office dynamics of an air traffic control tower. Such an infamously difficult job attracts a high-maintenance employee, armed with a particular kind of determination, and is riddled with its own ingrained routines and coded language. But On a Wing and a Prayer only features these air traffic control officers as supporting players, focusing on the family hurtling through a CGI-ed sky. Indeed, their efforts are so visually uninteresting that it throws into question the medium of this story. Perhaps a Discovery Channel special would be a better format? A podcast miniseries? On a Wing and a Prayer never justifies the scale and scope of film as its form, operating more like a high-budget TED Talk. 

What makes this conundrum all the more confusing is the final scene, which sees Doug deleting the slew of voicemails requesting him as a guest on the Ellen and Oprah shows. The humblebrag backfires in calamitous fashion, making us want to reach through our screens, imploring Doug to opt for the shortcut and pick up the phone—a talk show interview would’ve been a far shorter, far more watchable way to tell this story.

Needless to say, the lackluster On a Wing and a Prayer punishes us with an excessively long “where are they now” credits sequence which delves into the lives of each character. While some of these supporting performances are worth highlighting (specifically Raina Grey as a young Amelia Earhart enthusiast watching on), it can’t help but feel like a parody of this kind of pseudo-religious, vaguely conservative, based-on-a-true-story drama. The film takes itself so seriously that it is hard to take seriously. In the end, there is a nice moment where Doug talks to an apparition of his dead relative, played with a degree of restraint and care, that could offer us some closure. Moments later the family exits the plane to a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” This is the film: Constantly rendered emotionless by decision-making both numbingly predictable and entirely inexplicable. 

Director: Sean McNamara
Writer: Brian Egeston
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Jesse Metcalfe
Release Date: April 7, 2023 (Amazon)

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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