What looks like just another air-disaster vidpic turns out to be a well-thought-out, well-grounded stare at air traffic control stress. Using a fictional Midwest control center for the action, “Blackout Effect” is Matthew Bombeck’s thoughtful, nerve-jangling look at how Air Traffic Control helps 600 million air travelers per year reach their destinations — most of the time.
Scripter Bombeck, after setting up his assorted characters associated with Air Traffic Control, settles on understandably neurotic, electronically sharp employee Henry Drake (Charles Martin Smith), 48, who’s been whining about the ATC’s inadequate equipment and procedures for years.
He’s considered eccentric, and of all things, undependable. He claims to have written complaints to authorities, but his fellow workers, except for patient Karen (Leslie Hope), don’t pay any attention to him. They should have.
A monstrous thing happens. One of two large aircraft Drake’s assigned to tracking goes pffft! off his screen. His fellow controller Dan Lafia (Joe Guzaldo) doesn’t believe him, as the plane’s blip shows on his screen. The horrible ensuing crash costs 185 lives.
The National Safety Board’s security, headed up for the occasion by knowledgeable Dantley (Eric Stoltz), whose former g.f. died in the disaster, begins looking into not only Drake but into the facility headed by Wyatt (Denis Arndt), who believes Drake’s at fault. Dantley’s investigation pokes into bureaucratic corners, and everything points to Drake.
Drake subsequently is blamed for a momentary, total-facility blackout, but now he has disappeared. The FBI, the FAA and everybodybut Lassie are after him, while good-guy Dantley, with uncommon sense, sets out to find the truth.
Director Jeff Bleckner builds a superior telefilm out of what could have been an ordinary air crash story. Bombeck has supplied twists and a couple of real types to work through the meller, with Smith’s Drake, a loner and self-pitier, leading the pack. He behaves increasingly oddly as he insists he wasn’t responsible for all those deaths. Smith’s insistent Drake demands attention, sympathy and concern.
The actor makes him emotionally loose-jointed, but the character’s either madly self-assured or a man of consequence. In either case, railroad stock should pick up.
Stoltz’s interp of the troubled Dantley is acceptable, and Sterling’s few scenes as Karen are telling. As Tim Connors, Andy Comeau ably plays the trainee thrust into the air traffic big time. Lovely Alexandra Hedison as Dantley’s flight attendant ex-romance makes a strong impression.
Alan Caso’s right-on camerawork misses nothing, and Geoffrey Rowland’s snappily paced editing contributes to the suspense. Production designer Donald Lee Harris convincingly nails down the behind-the-scenes setups of the air transport world. He’s hit the look of the nerve-racking tension air traffic controllers must endure, though why there are so many sane ones left isn’t explored.
Bombeck and Bleckner almost make understandable the terrible decisions and actions by some of the people involved in keeping things flying. And some of the scandalous cover-ups.
By 2010 it’s estimated that a billion people per year will be aloft; talk about jangled nerves.