It feels harsh to criticise a movie based on a true story. Especially since, in the case of On a Wing and a Prayer, the depicted event is so small and occupied by none other than good ol’ regular folk. But if you’re going to take what, on paper, sounds like an extraordinary story and do it the disservice of making it incredibly dull, then accountability is in order.
On a Wing and a Prayer is a drama movie (a secret Christian one, no less) that doesn’t deliver any of the premise’s promise. It recreates the story of Doug White (Dennis Quaid) and his wife and daughters as they become trapped in a small twin-engine plane after their pilot suffers a heart attack and dies.
With little to no flight training, Doug must communicate with those on the ground in order to land the plane and get his family back to safety.
Seems a rather dramatic tale, no? So, tell me, why does it take so long to get to the plane? Before the family even steps foot on the fateful aircraft, we’re put through the ordeal of a lengthy BBQ competition and a funeral. In the one hour and forty-two minute runtime, almost the first thirty are dedicated to meandering and lacklustre character building.
Even when we’re on the plane, there are several minutes of dialogue that further postpone the very reason you sat down to watch the film.
The biggest failure of On a Wing and a Prayer is its lack of ability to create any meaningful tension. Even when the conflict commences with the pilot’s death, there is no notable spike in intensity or drama.
The rest of the runtime crawls along achingly, with small inserts of problems or complications barely adding anything to raise any sort of stakes. (Which, really, shouldn’t be so hard when the story has already written itself on account of having actually happened.)
It’s a problem that there’s a severe lack of chemistry between any of the family members, though Heather Graham as Terri White is clearly trying very hard to inject some charisma. The action movie also spends a lot of time cutting back and forth between the various factions of people who assisted with the landing, though none of these scenes are enticing enough to be worthy of the diverted attention. (This feels particularly prominent in scenes with a young air-traffic-obsessed girl who has negative-zero use.)
In fact, the sheer number of characters means it becomes hard to tell who’s actually contributing what to the story. We spend so much time with all these other supposed ‘key’ figures, never quite getting to know any of them enough to care.
The film is generally brought down by lacklustre sound design, predictable dialogue, and a lack of any style or aesthetic. It also commits the sin of not being a good movie, but not being quite so bad as to be a good-bad movie. The film’s end struggles to have any real impact, but does its best to try and have all the emotional tenacity of Armageddon, down to the overindulgence of slow-motion embraces on the tarmac. (It fails to hit the same mark, for the repancord.)
The essence of On a Wing and a Prayer can be surmised in a bizarre piece of dialogue in which Terri attempts to console a panicking Doug by telling him they’ve faced bigger challenges than this. Really? Bigger challenges than trying to land a plane with no experience?! Well, perhaps a movie about those might have been entirely more interesting than this one.
For real-life stories that have an impact, check out our Air review and Tetris review. Don’t forget to check out our list of the best movies of all time, as well as all the other new movies coming out this year, too.
On a Wing and a Prayer review
The only thing that saves On a Wing and a Prayer from a lone star is its potential of being a somewhat reasonable viewing pick under the right circumstances. (Such as: a nice Sunday film to watch with your conservative grandmother. That’s it. That’s the circumstance.)