Having just attended the funeral of his brother, Doug White (Dennis Quaid) and his family — wife Terri (Heather Graham) and daughters Bailey (Abigail Rhine) and Maggie (Jessi Case) — are flying back to their home in Louisiana. Unfortunately, shortly after takeoff, their pilot suffers a heart attack and dies. Now Doug, who’s had only one flight lesson in his entire life, has to not only fly the plane but also land safely.
Doug has people on the ground, trying to talk him through the landing even though they don’t know what is actually happening in the cockpit. Hard-drinking Dan Favio (Rocky Myers) calls his friend, Kari Sorenson (Jesse Metcalfe). Kari has never gotten over the death of his family in a similar plane crash so, for him, helping Doug land is about more than just saving Doug and his family. It’s also about achieving his own personal redemption and hopefully finding the strength to forgive himself.
While this is going on, two kids — Donna (Raina Grey) and Buggy (Trayce Malachi) — follow the flight online and then head down to the airport so that they can watch it try to land. To be honest, I’m really not sure why either one of them is in the movie. When Donna first showed up, talking about how she wanted to be a pilot because “Mr. Jones” told her that girls can’t fly planes, I found myself dreading the inevitable moment when the kids would take it upon themselves to help Doug land the plane. I dreaded Donna calling the cockpit and Doug going, “Wait a minute …. you’re just a kid!” Fortunately, that moment didn’t happen but I was still left wondering why Donna and Buggy were in the film to begin with.
It feels almost churlish to be overly critical of a film like On a Wing and a Prayer because it is based on a true story. Doug White really did have to land an airplane after the pilot died mid-flight and he really was instructed on what to do by a group of air traffic controllers and Kari Sorenson. It’s a good story and the film ends with some undeniably touching shots of the real people involved in the landing. That said, this is ultimately a film that many filmgoers will want to like more than they actually do. Thanks to some dodgy special effects, the viewer never forgets that Dennis Quaid and his family aren’t really tapped up in the sky. Instead, one is always aware that they’re just watching a movie and a rather cheap-looking one at that. As well, the script is full of awkward dialogue and heavy-handed moments. As soon as I saw that one of the daughters wouldn’t stop looking at her phone, I knew that she would be the one who would be forced to grow up in a hurry. As soon as the other daughter ate something with nuts in it, I knew that there was going to be a desperate search for an epi-pen.
On the plus side, Dennis Quaid was as likable as ever and Heather Graham managed to wring some genuine feeling out of even the most sentimental of dialogue. On A Wing and a Prayer was directed by Sean McNamara, who also directed one of my favorite films of 2011, Soul Surfer. (Later this year, McNamara and Quaid have another project that is scheduled to be released, a biopic of President Ronald Reagan.) On A Wing and A Prayer doesn’t really work as a film but, as a story, it at least reminds us of what people are capable of doing when they all work together.
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