I remember watching this on VHS when I was a kid. No doubt it was on Dad's night to choose a movie to rent. Airplanes and firefighting...two things that have always been in his wheelhouse. I also remember the pre-show on the VHS. The "pre-show" is how I'm referring to the trailers and the FBI warning and all that stuff at the start of a VHS tape. Anyway, this was one of the first VHS tapes released in a letterboxed format, and as such, the pre-show included a huge disclaimer explaining the concept of letterboxing and no, there's nothing wrong with your TV or the tape, those black bars are supposed to be at the top and bottom of the screen.
And then the movie started. I always remembered that opening scene. Two fishermen, having a lazy day, in their dinghy, fishing on a lake. Way off in the background, we see a water bomber touch down, and begin skimming the surface of the lake, refilling. The sleepy fishermen take notice of this, and come to the realization that the water bomber is heading right for them. The dive into the lake for safety just as the water bomber finishes filling up and just misses the boat.
Hey, look! It's on YouTube.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As the legend goes, while Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss were working on Jaws way back in the day, they discovered they both loved an old World War II film called A Guy Named Joe. They would have long conversations about it, and even quote the film to each other on slow days. When Jaws was all finished, they vowed they'd do their own remake of A Guy Named Joe one day. And that film was Always. The biggest change they made was switching it from World War II bomber pilots to modern day water bomber pilots.
Richard Dreyfuss is Pete, our hero. He's one of the best water bomber pilots there is. But, his daredevil antics in the cockpit cause a world of worry for his girlfriend and fellow pilot Dorinda (played by Holly Hunter) and his best friend Al (played by John Goodman). Finally, one night, after a very heated discussion, Dorinda convinces Pete to settle down and take a teaching position at a newly-opened training facility. But, I'm sure you know the cliche. Pete goes out on one last mission, where he is killed.
Pretty much the first half of the movie is set aside for establishing these relationships. I wonder if Spielberg was knowingly referencing that cocky pilot his friend George Lucas created when Dorinda tells Pete she loves him and he simply responds with "I know." No dramatic freezing in carbonite here to end the conversation...this actually leads into a long discussion as to why he won't say it back to her.
And because we get to know these people all so thoroughly, it's all the more heartbreaking when Pete dies. That's another image that always stuck with me from when I saw the film when I was a kid. So, Pete and Al are on a bombing run. Al dips a little too low, brushes the burning treetops, and his left engine catches on fire. Pete saves the day by going into a steep dive with his plane, and gets it in such a position that he's able to dump some of his fire-retardant foam on Al's plane too, thus saving Al. But now Pete goes too low, and brushes against the burning treetops. Pete climbs out of the fire, but now, his left engine is on fire. Pete looks over at Al, gives a little chuckle that says, "Can you believe this?" And then his plane blows up. A horrified Al just rips off his aviator sunglasses and pounds his hand in frustration against the cockpit window. We head back to base, where Al goes to deliver the news to Dorinda, but because she was pulling a shift on dispatch that day, she was in the control tower, where she heard the whole thing on her radio.
And then we see Pete, calmly walking through the burnt-out forest. He comes across an untouched patch of grass, and there he meets and angel named Hap. Hap explains that Pete is dead, and he now has a new role in the universe. He is to serve as the muse...the inspiration to a new pilot. "They hear you inside their own minds as if it were their own thoughts" is how she sums it up.
And here's where Always will help you win your bar's trivia league night. To play the angelic Hap, Spielberg was able to coax Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn out of retirement. This went down in movie history as her final film.
Pete returns to Earth six months after his death, and he's assigned to a lovable doofus of a pilot named Ted. Turns out Ted had a brief encounter with Pete before Pete's death, and that inspired him to become a water bomber pilot. Ted signs up for that aforementioned new training facility, and it turns out Al took the teaching position that was offered to Pete. Under Pete's spiritual tutelage, Ted starts turning into a talented pilot. But, Pete can't resist pranking his old buddy Al from beyond the grave and, in one of the more memorable gags in the film, gets Ted to "accidentally" drop a load on Al from above.
Meanwhile, we catch up with Dorinda. While making a supply run, Al discovers that she's still grieving for Pete, has locked herself away from the world, and is grinding away as an air traffic controller. To encourage her to get back out in the world, Al gets her a job at the training facility. And between Ted and Dorinda, it's love at first sight...much to Pete's ghostly heartbreak.
Another of my favourite little scenes. When Ted and Dorinda first meet, and it's a typical Hollywood meet-cute, and Dorinda smiles. You can see it's the first time in a long time that she's happy. But ghostly Pete whispers to her, "But you're still my girl," and we the smile slowly fade from Dorinda's face. Dick move, Pete.
And there's another great scene. Wanting to do his part to get Dorinda and Ted together, Al sends them into town on a grocery run. On their way into town, they see a school bus swerve off the road, and the bus driver stumble out, clearly having a heart attack. While Dorinda runs to the nearest farmhouse to call an ambulance (this was 1989 BCP...before cell phones), Ted does a good job juggling the multiple balls of performing CPR on the bus driver and keeping the kids calm. The ghost of the bus driver briefly appears next to Pete, where Pete compliments him on getting the kids to safety before things got really bad. Ted succeeds in reviving the bus driver. Pete, elated that his protege pulled it off, goes to the bus driver's ghost to celebrate...only to realize that there is no more ghost because the bus driver is alive again. Very quirky scene.
Needless to say, though, as Dorinda and Ted fall deeper in love, it's hell on Pete, who finally seeks out Hap for guidance. Hap reveals that yes, she did have an ulterior motive for assigning Pete to Ted...it was also to give Pete a chance to say his good-byes to Dorinda.
Things all come to a head on the one year anniversary of Pete's death. It's the height of fire season. A group of smokejumpers are trapped behind the fire with no hope of escape. Ted, with Pete's help, puts together a risky plan to go in with a plane and essentially clear a path for the smokejumpers. Not wanting to lose another love to daredevil heroics, Dorinda swipes Ted's plane with the intent of doing the mission herself. With Pete's spirit sitting next to her and guiding her, Dorinda is able to pull it off. On their way back to base, Pete finally puts it all out there and says his good-byes. However, there's engine trouble and they have to make an emergency landing in a lake. Pete is able to take a solid form once again and guide Dorinda to safety, allowing her to say her good-byes. Dorinda emerges from the wilderness and back to base, and back into the waiting arms of Ted. Having said his good-byes to Dorinda and all his experience to Ted, Pete turns around and walks off into the Great Unknown.
Always is a sweet little film. It's got some great special effects work, too, by ILM. This being 1989, no doubt most of the aerial sequences were done with model work, and it's easily some of the most realistic models ever put to screen. And there's this lovely shot, too, when Dorinda and Pete are heading back to base, when the smoke and clouds part and they see a clear night sky. Beautiful stuff.
And I want to take a moment to single out a very young Marg Helgenberger (aka the star of CSI) in a small role as Rachel, one of the mechanics at the training facility. Damn, she's so young in this film! Her role is very small...she's smitten with Ted, but pulls back when she realizes he's only got eyes for Dorinda. She stands out, and makes the most out of that small role.
Anyway, that's Always. It's on Netflix. If you're looking for something a little romantic one night, it'll fill the bill.