Steven Spielberg directs this fantasy-romance based on the 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe. Despite some playful humour & good performances, it’s a misstep in the acclaimed director’s career.
Steven Spielberg’s Always was a departure for the director in more ways than one. Based on the 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe, the film tells the story of a daredevil pilot who comes back from the dead after a fatal crash to help a younger man realise his own potential in the air. Always’ sense of adventure and elements of fantasy might be typical of the Spielberg brand but the film has a largely low-key sensibility that distinguishes it from the director’s blockbuster catalogue while its lukewarm critical reception and lacklustre box office return define it as a Spielberg misstep.
This romantic comedy tells the story of Pete Sandich (played by Richard Dreyfuss in his third film with Spielberg after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). He is an aerial firefighter who, from his A-26 bomber, drops fire retardant slurry to extinguish forest wildfires. His daredevil antics often put his life in danger at the expense of saving others while his long-suffering girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) watches nervously from the control tower wondering if he’ll come back alive.
But so far he has come back – always. And their love for each other has prospered despite Dorinda’s reservations about Pete’s attitude to live life on the edge. Eventually he agrees that he can’t continue to put himself at risk knowing Dorinda fears she will be left alone. The pair decide to move to a different town where Pete can tutor new pilots. Yet, before they can leave a new forest fire rages out of control and the crew on the ground become trapped. Pete decides he has to help. It turns out to be his last mission.
After he carries out a daring manoeuvre to extinguish an engine fire on his best friend Al Yackey’s (John Goodman) plane by flying over him and dropping his load on the wing, he finds himself in a crippling dive. Having saved the life of his friend he now faces a seemingly unpreventable fate. He awakens six months later and is informed by Hap (Audrey Hepburn in her last screen performance) that he must return to earth as a kind of guardian angel who no one can see. When he speaks, people can hear his words as if they are thoughts of their own. On earth, he is tasked with tutoring a young pilot in order for him to fulfil his own dreams. Pete quickly gets used to his new role, playfully utlising his powers to influence people’s thoughts, but complications arise when his protégé falls in love with Dorinda.
By any other director Always would probably be considered an entertaining comedy-drama with some delightful performances and a handful of standout aerial action sequences. By Steven Spielberg, however, it is somewhat lacking. Always’ biggest problem is that it feels self-indulgent. Perhaps Spielberg was resting on his laurels or thinking about other projects (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released the same year and Jurassic Park was just around the corner) but for a film steeped in the love a man and woman have for each other, it feels distinctly unloved by its director.
Between some wonderful moments that are typical of Spielberg (the witty opening shot of a plane flying over water to top up its reserves while a pair of fishermen quietly go about their business is striking in its sense of visual awe) the film gets bogged down in the director’s attempts to rekindle classic film melodrama for a contemporary audience. This dates the film and feels removed from its more playful moments (one of my favourite scenes sees Pete’s protégé land at an airport only to unknowingly follow an unmanned runaway aircraft-towing vehicle with the sign “follow me” emblazoned on its rear). Given these few sparks of energy, which are added to by its principle cast members, it’s a shame that Always lets itself down in other areas.
The film’s biggest problem is the character of Ted Baker. Not only is he tonally all over the place, he’s brought to life, if one can use that term, by former Marlboro Man Brad Johnson. The limitations of the actor are not helped by a director whose thoughts appear elsewhere (probably preparations for his 1991 Peter Pan epic Hook) and an underdeveloped character who has the artificiality of a caricature unwillingly planted into an otherwise interesting story of tragedy, lost love and enduring friendship. The brilliance of Dreyfuss, Hunter and Goodman only highlight further Johnson’s inept attempts at charisma or sincerity. Hunter’s Dorinda simply could not fall for this gormless idiot, debilitating the film’s central conceit.
Yet, Always has a good heart. It’s a film that despite its flaws is still likely to put a smile on your face. Dreyfuss is always on top form when working with Spielberg, a director he clearly admires, while Hunter is equally terrific as the strong-willed but emotionally fragile Dorinda. John Goodman offers plenty of laughs as well as some wonderful moments of tenderness as Pete and Dorinda’s closest friend. So that makes three out of four main characters you can get behind. Not a bad return! While Always will remain one of Spielberg’s lesser efforts, it perhaps suffers from the director’s penchant for the blockbuster. For a director who has been behind many of cinema’s most memorable films, Always is a strangely forgettable affair.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Jerry Belson, Diane Thomas
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn
Released: 1989 / Genre: Romance
Country: USA / IMDB
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