After last week’s almost messianic arrival of “The Phantom Menace” and its entirely fictitious heroes, the PBS documentary series “The American Experience” offers a welcome antidote of patriotic, living heroines in “Fly Girls.” Filmmaker Laurel Ladevich’s smart, splendidly paced, docu profiles the real-life Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) who flew planes and bombers to Allied bases in World War II. Forget Natalie Portman; these women were, and remain, smart, skilled, strong, sexy and brave — barrier-breaking role models truly worth standing in line for.
Storyline tells the largely unheard saga of about 1,000 Depression-bred American women who from 1942 to 1944 ferried military aircraft as WASPs, freeing up more men for overseas combat duty. They were inspired by America’s premiere post-Amelia Earhart aviator, Jacqueline Cochran. By early 1941, Cochran’s inspired leadership had recruited 24 American women to ferry planes throughout Britain.
With a severe Stateside pilot shortage caused by America’s entry into the war, Cochran successfully pushed generals to let women become civilian pilots for the U.S. Army. Thirty-eight women would die flying; it would take a 1977 presidential order for the WASPs to receive full military recognition with burial honors and veterans’ status.
Docu has only one historian interview, relying mostly on thoughtful remembrances from seven WASP veterans. (Chuck Yeager also sings their praises). The dominance of female talking heads gives the docu a feel that is feminine and strong, but not in-your-face feminist.
Actress Mary McDonnell’s almost lilting narration is coupled with Kath Soucie’s voiceover of letters written by WASP and Nashville debutante Cornelia Fort, whose accidental midair fate makes her beautiful writing that much more poignant.
As much an American cross-section as the men off Iwo Jima’s shoreline, the WASP women were, as McDonnell says, “housewives and mothers, coeds and farm girls, socialites, secretaries even actresses.” (World War II-era racism meant the WASPs generally were WASPs in another way, but other people’s bigotry does not detract from their accomplishments.)
Within two years, there was not a single type of military aircraft not flown by an American woman pilot. Some WASPs were so good they became test pilots and flight instructors. Two tested Boeing’s B29 Superfortress bomber before another B29 became the Enola Gay and bombed Hiroshima.
Ladevich’s team culled still photos and newsreel footage as obscure as they are fascinating, further proving the inexhaustible treasure that is World War II imagery. After WASP veterans recount the snakes and spiders at their Sweetwater, Texas, training camp, Ladevich cuts to a newsreel of women exercising, as a male announcer intones, “But even before they get a chance to take the polish off their nails … the Air Force wants to get a little muscle on those pretty arms.”
“Fly Girls” takes no Pollyanna view of WASPs as they endured discrimination, six months of flight instruction, dropout rates as high as male cadets, soldiers hitting on them — and possibly murder. (Two WASPs were killed in crashes; sugar was found in one plane’s gas tank. Fearing bad publicity, Cochran kept this quiet.)
Cochran’s own ambition refused to let her merge the WASPs with the much larger Women’s Army Corps (WACS) because that meant serving under a women colonel who the aviator said, “does not know her ass from a propeller.”
Mark Adler is one of the best music editors in “The American Experience” lineup. Unlike others scoring for this PBS docu franchise, Adler knows when silence is the best soundtrack, then makes great use of piano, flute, clarinet, drum, trumpet or period tune. Additional tech credits are also quite good, including aerial cinematographer Jack Tankard’s matching of cloud shots to Fort’s letters.