Those familiar with the comic-strip Peanuts will recall that Snoopy often fantasized about being a World War I flying ace. Sitting atop his doghouse as if it were a Sopwith Camel biplane, he dreamed of being in dogfight combat with his arch nemesis The Red Baron, a real German ace (never actually depicted in the strip) who would riddle the doghouse with bullet holes. It is probably our generation's greatest association with that war, seeing as how Hollywood has pretty much ignored it for decades.
Ever since Howard Hughes lost both money and lives attempting to recreate the war's aerial combat on screen for 1930's Hell's Angels, the cost of showing another realistic dogfight just couldn't have been worth it for producers in the subsequent 75 years. The closest thing to a dogfight at the movies has been Star Wars, which modeled its space battles after WWI footage -- not using real spaceships, of course. Now, finally, there is Flyboys, a film that uses computer effects for the dogfights, making for a much safer production, and also a more artificial one.
Flyboys is the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, an air force made up of American pilots volunteering their service to the French before the U.S. joined up with the Allied Powers. The problem is that it doesn't actually present that story as it happened; instead it uses made-up characters in place of those who actually existed and therefore stays clear of being honest with history. It may claim to be "inspired by a true story," but the phrase has about as much legitimacy these days as the "long ago, in a galaxy far, far away" preface to Star Wars.
Modern, 21st-century war films about our past conflicts seem to rely on effects over realism -- or, worse, effects at the expense of realism. In the same way that Pearl Harbor offered us a plastic depiction of World War II in a rush to to get the audience up close and personal with descending bombs and racing torpedoes, Flyboys puts its human elements on the back burner in favor of its synthetic spectacle. Contrary to modern producers' beliefs, bringing us nearer to the machines of war does not make it more real for us, nor does CGI make anything look more authentic.
The planes of WWI were made of canvas and wood and other cheap materials, but on screen, at least in the aerial scenes, they appear so airbrushed that they have no sense of tangibility, let alone fragility. The rest of the movie seems glossed over, too, in order to connect visually to the effects sequences. All scenes display a tremendous, unreal depth of focus, without a single blurry object in the frame. The thing is, for all its crispness, it ends up looking flat. Basically Flyboys comes off like a cartoon masquerading as a live-action feature. We might as well be watching Snoopy, along with Dastardly and Muttley up there in the planes.
The characters we do see are caricatures, anyway. In the lead, displaying his usual hubris and not-so-pretty-boy charm, is James Franco as Blaine Rawlings, a cowboy from Texas with an authority problem; it is exactly the same role that he played earlier this year in Annapolis. Fortunately for this film, that one was barely seen, and most of its audience won't notice. But for the most part, Franco keeps trying to evoke James Dean, who he played on television; he just doesn't seem to understand that had Dean not died so early, he would have moved on from the angst schtick that he's most remembered for. Franco, on the other hand, might just give us more of the same until he can find another icon to relate to.
The rest of the cast helps the film fulfill some standard clichés and stay one-dimensional. There's a rich kid (Tyler Labine), a religious kid (Michael Jibson), a cowardly kid (Philip Winchester), a mysterious kid (real-life daredevil David Ellison) and a black kid (Abdul Salis). In one way, it makes sense for the squadron to be so under-developed as characters. Just as the young men are told from the beginning that there's no sense making friends because each pilot has a life-expectancy of only a few weeks, the audience is similarly discouraged from attachment and prepared for when a pilot is killed. But by that logic there would be no excuse to portray Captain Thenault (Jean Reno), who is one of the few real people represented, with an equally thin personality. Other significant parts include the rogue ace who leads the squadron (Martin Henderson) and the disposable French girl who Rawlings dangerously falls for (Jennifer Decker).
In compliance with the old rule, the Germans are barely given faces, let alone names, although to supply Flyboys with a central villain, one of the bad guys gets a different colored plane, a more ruthless fighting etiquette and the title of "The Black Falcon." Those looking for a history lesson about WWI won't find it here, as the conflict between the Allied and Central Powers is never explained. Considering our generations' unfamiliarity with the war, this is a curious move, but Flyboys is a movie crammed with generalizations -- and more than a little racism. The extent to which the real hero Eugene Bullard, the first black fighter pilot, is exploited in the film, is surprisingly without taste. Not only is he represented by a fictional counterpart, but that character is written with token dialogue: Asked what his father does, Salis responds "my daddy was a slave," and has to spit out a whole speech about becoming a pilot because nobody can see his skin, "up there."
The common, pop cultural knowledge of World War I isn't broadened any further with Flyboys than it had been with the Peanuts strip, unfortunately. For all the technology available now, it is a shame that a lot of historical drama is now less convincing than ever. There is no denying that the dogfights in the film, animation or not, are stunning to watch, particularly in one scene in which the squadron goes up against a zeppelin, and perhaps the escapism of it all will take us away from the reality of our current war. Still, by treating World War I as a more exciting and, pardon the phrase, airier conflict is to conceal its traumatic reality. Flyboys is like a children's book version of the events; although there is a fair amount of death and destruction, with splattering of beautiful Crayola-red blood, an unlikely number of main characters survive in order to get their own cheesy "where they went from here" captions. And like a children's book, it will probably hold the attention of its audience with its pretty pictures, enough that they may not even notice the spareness of the narrative and educational material.