Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.
In 1990, Roger Spottiswoode released Air America, based on the 1979 non-fiction book of the same name by Christopher Robbins. Starring Mel Gibson, Robert Downey, Jr., Nancy Travis, Ken Jenkins, David Marshall Grant, Lane Smith, Art LaFleur, Ned Eisenberg, Marshall Bell, David Bowe, Burt Kwouk, Burke Byrnes, Tim Thomerson, Harvey Jason, Sinjai Hongthai, Natta Nantatanti, and Purin Phanichphant, the film grossed $57.7 million at the box office and was nominated for the Political Film Society Award for Exposé.
In 1969, radio eye-in-the-sky Billy Covington is stripped of his pilot’s license after buzzing a semi-driver during a traffic report. However, nearly immediately after he gets his license revoked, he is offered a job from a covert airlifting organization operating out of Laos known as Air America. He accepts and finds that he’s working with a number of lunatics. His partner, Gene Ryack, is a self-proclaimed Buddhist who is also a gun smuggler on the side. Soon though, the two find that the organization is a drug-smuggling operation run by the two ranking officers in the area.
An interesting film, Air America is pretty much what can be expected from a film about an airlifting organization that’s actually smuggling drugs during the Vietnam War. Notably, it presents a plot that can come off as pretty realistic. The organization is one that totally doesn’t exist and is naturally taking the pilots that nobody else wants, so naturally they’re pretty crazy and weird. One instance of this craziness comes out when the pilots are playing miniature golf and one of them plays by shooting another person’s ball. The craziness is also found during flights with Gene and Jack deciding to scare Billy by making him think the former was sucked out of the plane without a parachute when he was actually tied to the fuselage. Further, the notion that what they’re doing isn’t actually happening shows up early on when one of Gene’s friends dies in a crash. He’s told to remember that they’re not there and he replies that if that’s the case, then the conversation never took place and he can’t remember what the other person told him. The film also pulls a hefty dose of reality at the end with the Major Lemond and General Soong continuing to further the drug smuggling.
However, that makes sense in a film that presents the case that while there are good and bad guys, none of them fall purely on the totally good or bad spectrum. Soong and Lemond may be smuggling drugs, but none of them are doing it for monetary gain and Gene, who is mostly a neutral character, actually points out early on in the film that wars in Southeast Asia can’t be won without controlling the local opium trade and as such, the two of them are simply doing what they have to in order to win the war. On the other side of the spectrum, Senator Davenport is a good person who wants to turn Soong and Lemond in for the drug trafficking, but even he recognizes that not only will the war be impossible to win, but that Lemond is so well liked by the president that Davenport can’t bring him in, so he looks the other way.
As an individual character, Buddy comes into the operation without knowing what to expect only having the idea that the government wants him for Air America because he got his license pulled. However, his actions in the beginning of the film show that he’s actually perfect for the organization, seeing as he’s brave and foolhardy enough to buzz a semi truck during a traffic jam while reporting the news.
At the same time, there’s Gene who fancies himself a Buddhist, even though he’s running guns and even retorts with how he never said he’s a good Buddhist when confronted. Yet, he’s savvy enough to be able to turn whatever situation he’s in towards his favor, which is seen after he and Billy get captured after crashing in the jungle. He’s able to convince the Montagnards who have them that they should buy weapons from him in order to replace outdated French flintlock rifles. What’s more, to further the above notion that no one in this film falls on either extreme of the moral spectrum, he has a selfless streak to him as well, seeing as he, Billy and Babo are rescuing villagers from Soong’s troops and he dumps a stash of weapons that would have made him quite bit of money in retirement so they can all fit on the plane.