Nine hundred WWII veterans die every day, according to helmer Dan Hayes’ docu homage “Honor Flight” — a statistic that underscores the urgency of honoring the Americans who fought the last great global war. An inescapable sense of poignancy and sentiment informs this rather workaday, music-sodden docu, which would have made a sensational short, and will probably work best in an abbreviated cut for TV outlets and the educational circuit.
Star and Stripes Honor Flight, the program at the center of the film, sponsors all-expenses-paid trips to the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., for vets of that conflict, and Hayes’ film is both an infomercial for the program and the story of the Wisconsin chapter’s efforts to raise funds and awareness. The enthusiasm of people like Wisconsin Honor Flight chairman Joe Dean, logistics manager Steve Deutsch and PR consultant Renee Riddle feels entirely genuine, and the individuals they enlist in their cause — such as local radio personality Charlie Sykes, who spreads the word about the Honor Flight and its would-be travelers across the Milwaukee airwaves — is quite uplifting.
The same can be said of the emotional responses of men like Harvey Kurz, who enlisted at age 16 right after Pearl Harbor, and Joe Demler, who was the subject of a famous 1945 Life magazine photo of the “human skeleton” he became after months of malnutrition as a German POW.
Neither Dean nor Hayes makes clear why the vets profiled couldn’t or haven’t already made the trip on their own; finances are undoubtedly a concern, but no one traveling to Washington seems to lack means or family support. If other circumstances exist, the filmmakers chose not to focus on them, but rather on the program’s sense of mission. The three planes’ worth of ex-servicepeople the Honor Flight group is trying to get to Washington, and the eventual visit there, provides an event to which they can peg the movie, putting an upbeat spin on a story rooted in these former soldiers’ painful memories.
The best parts of the film, unsurprisingly, are the elderly men’s recollections of where, how and with whom they fought. Tears flow freely when long-dead comrades are remembered, to a degree that feels just a shade exploitative, especially given how earnestly the film tries to take its subjects and viewers on a sentimental journey, largely through a tsunami of music supplied by Josh Christiansen and Alexander Maas, alternating between folksy/sensitive guitar and full orchestral string wash. The sense of salesmanship that lingers throughout the film is too bad, because the veterans’ stories are good enough to support a narrative, albeit a shorter one.