On a Wing and a Prayer flips on autopilot for its Christian survival story.
Published on April 26, 2023
Rating 1 /5
The best way that a true-story film could be summed up is with the final scene. After the harrowing experience of becoming an unexpected hero, pilot Doug White (Dennis Quaid) listens to voicemails on his answering machine. The messages are from The Ellen Show and Oprah, asking if he’d like to come on and share his true story. He smugly skips over these messages, not wanting to tell his story this way. It’s debatable whether or not this film adaptation was preferable for being more accurate and less sensationalized. The result is On a Wing and a Prayer, a film about a daring survival story that ends up being more tedious than it should be.
There’s a constant tone with a film like this to keep it safe enough for Midwest Christians. Doug is portrayed as an all-American guy learning to fly a plane and dabbling in BBQ contests. The BBQ fest lasts long in the first act, with plenty of extra footage of crowds, food, and dogs. We get to know the people in Doug’s life, including the eccentric brother and his traditional wife, Terri (Heather Graham). They speak in bland conversations meant to be more playful but ultimately become mundane. Doug and his brother have mild arguments over piloting, and Doug tells his wife he doesn’t need a BBQ trophy because his wife is the real prize. He does win the trophy, if you’re wondering.
Before the inciting incident, the film meanders with that familiar flavor of milquetoast. Doug and Terri have teenage daughters, one of which wants to be off on their own and communicating on their phone. Cue the bog-standard lecture by parents about not being online all the time in a short-sighted manner yet portrayed as correct. Following this scene, Doug and his old brother will talk about how they grew up with their parents spanking them and treat it with nostalgia and desire for the future. As if all that wasn’t enough to showcase how the winds shift in this narrative, Doug soon lapses in faith after his brother dies. He attends the funeral service and rants about how God shouldn’t let such tragedies happen. His wife says he needs faith in God, but Doug isn’t ready to pray again. If you’re familiar with the Christpoiltation movies like God’s Not Dead and Let There Be Light, you can probably guess where Doug’s arc is going.
During a flight with Doug, Terri, and their two daughters, the pilot dies of a heart attack, and Doug needs to land the plane. With little experience, he’ll need all the help he can get on the ground, ranging from the air traffic control tower to a child prodigy monitoring the flight. For the rest of the movie, there’s a heavy focus on the science of weather and planes to achieve a miracle of a safe landing. Apollo 13, this is not. A great film could find the dramatic tension of the situation. Still, this film seems to rely almost entirely on the textbook specifics of this tale, where an amateur child actor rattling off stats on wind speeds and jet functions is supposed to be exciting more for the facts than the execution. While all this devotion to accurately retelling the biographical tale is admirable, it doesn’t make for the best film as it slogs from one exposition dump to the next with very little thrill in between. There’s also the religious aspect in which prayer helps land the play, leading to Doug believing in God again.
On a Wing and a Prayer flips on autopilot for its Christian survival story. The inspiration feels lacking for an audience not already buying into the idea that God will bring about a safe landing. A story like this could work if its approach felt more genuine and less tactile. Unfortunately, this film never takes off in an exciting direction. It gets lost in the clouds of mundane Christian movies and never comes down.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.