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Growing up during the Evangelical heyday of purity rings and the Left Behind book series, I heard many things about faith and God, including the old adage that the Lord works in mysterious ways. But there's no mystery why the religious film “On a Wing and a Prayer” fails to take off. It falls short of the glory of competent filmmaking and gorges on cheap sentimentally and cliches, undermining its own message. The best preachers always know how to tell a story and tie it back to a Biblical lesson, but director Sean McNamara has less than a youth pastor’s grasp on his main character’s crisis of faith.
Based on the true story of the family who survived a similar ordeal, “On a Wing and a Prayer” follows Doug White (Dennis Quaid), a dutiful husband to Terri (Heather Graham), dad to his two girls Maggie (Jessi Case) and Bailey (Abigail Rhyne), a loving brother to Jeff (Brett Rice), a friendly neighborhood pharmacist, a budding pilot, and a proud Louisiana resident. He is a man of faith whose religion is shaken by the sudden death of his brother. Looking to pick his spirits up on Easter Sunday, Terri talks the pilot of their next flight into letting Doug sit in the co-pilot seat up front. It’s blue skies as far as the eyes can see—until their pilot slumps in his seat, dead. Now it’s up to Doug to protect his family and get them back to earth with a little help from Divine Intervention and some well-timed radio and phone calls to get the worldly coaching he needs to fly his plane.
McNamara, who previously ventured into religious movie waters with “Soul Surfer,” boils the premise down to familiar beats and motifs. The grieving patriarch who turns his back on God course-corrects back onto his religious tracks when facing doom. A control tower worker named Dan (Rocky Myers) struggles with alcohol and chasing women until the events of that day and magically reforms by nightfall. A couple in Connecticut, Kari (Jesse Metcalfe) and Ashley (Anna Enger Ritch) are on their way to a breakup when they instead team up to avoid disaster. Nothing is surprising or interesting about these shallow one-note stories. We know where they’re going because screenwriter Brian Egeston’s dialogue painstakingly overexplains what’s happening as we’re watching it happen, and because some moments of the movie have all the acting and visual finesse of a Hallmark Channel movie. If you missed the earlier signs, maybe the obvious music cues will help: “Spirit in the Sky” accompanies take off, and then a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is used in the film's climax.
My frustrations with “On a Wing and a Prayer” go beyond its simplistic “1+1=2” screenwriting, cheap visual effects, and cable-ready cinematography. McNamara and Egeston don’t trust the suspense of their story to work on its own, so other issues are thrown into the mix, like a surprise storm; a random allergic reaction; and a precocious aspiring aviatrix named Donna (Raina Grey) and her clueless but enthusiastic friend, Buggy (Trayce Malachi), who spend much of their screentime explaining the air control tower jargon and how they’re doing it wrong. These are not characters; they are storytelling devices at their most obvious and annoying. At one point, as the kids are following the potential disaster, Donna says that she wants to become a pilot like her dad “Because one time after science class, Mr. Jones said I couldn’t.” The moment feels wildly glib, like the filmmakers tried to shoe-horn in a girl interested in airplanes because the rest of the women in the cast are just along for the ride.
By high school, I felt there was no place for me in the church. Women were supposed to be their husband’s greatest supporters, but where was the reciprocated effort for wives’ ambitions? Giving God our best would never be enough because we, as girls then and later women, were not meant to lead. This sentiment is subtly echoed in “On a Wing and a Prayer.” When things look bad, and Doug is starting to give up hope, Terri prays, holds his hand, and jumps in the co-pilot seat to help him. When Terri prays with her daughters on the plane, she says she wants to see them grow up, get married, and have their own kids and then tacks on, “Whatever they want to do,” because our plans come third after taking care of marriage and family. Ashley’s greatest contribution to the story is that she suggests and then helps Kari build a cockpit in their garage so he can guide Doug with exact instructions. I know it’s Doug who’s going through the spiritual journey, but these women are on their own paths as well, even if this story doesn’t acknowledge their full existence.
“On a Wing and a Prayer” is a simple thriller with a last-minute final message delivered by an apparition: “let go,” a lesson that’s not really mentioned before. But this movie is no fine-tuned sermon. Everything in this film moves forward on a predictable trajectory that won’t challenge or overextend viewers. Each mini-story neatly resolves itself before the credits roll and the photo montage of real-life people with their on-screen counterparts begins. Then thankfully, the ordeal is over for all.
On Prime Video now.
Dennis Quaid as Doug White
Heather Graham as Terri White
Jesse Metcalfe as Jesse White
Abbey Rhyne as Bailey White
Jessi Case as Maggie White
Brett Rice as Jeff White
Rocky Myers as Dan Favio
Selena Anduze as Lisa Grimm
E. Roger Mitchell as Brian Norton