“Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag” is a throwback to newsreels of yore trumpeting the daring exploits of wartime aviators. As such, even though this is a ramrod straight docu about the demands, pressures and thrills of being a contempo fighter pilot, it also has something in common with Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” — though latter is vastly more electrifying when airborne. Pic’s hardly holiday fare, but should do well with dads and their sons fleeing from shopping chores, while bugging those opposed to current U.S. military ventures.
Presumably, the greatest strength of an Imax format film about flying would be placing viewers in the cockpit and immersing eyes and ears in the total flight experience. Director Stephen Low is either unable or unwilling to do this, leaving the distinct sense that a master flight cameraman like Greg McGillivray would have been the man for this job.
Instead, the central concerns of “Fighter Pilot” are the tasks and exercises that an Air Force pilot trainee — in this case, an all-American guy named Capt. John C. Stratton — must endure before being shipped off to battle in the Middle East. Pic documents “Operation Red Flag,” an international training exercise among NATO-affiliated and 27 other air forces that convene at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas.
For two weeks, Stratton (who narrates some brief first-person thoughts, as well as reflections about his WWII fighter ace grandfather) is sent through the Red Flag ringer in his amazingly agile F-15 Eagle: He’s chased, he hunts, and he’s even dropped behind “enemy” lines for a search-and-rescue mission. There’s little doubt he will be whisked away safe and sound.
Meanwhile, Low’s cameras are placed at extraordinarily close proximity to the pilots’ ground targets, which are obliterated in a stunning bombing exercise sequence; rarely has the furious power of bombing been captured so intimately on camera, conveying a sickening sense of what it must feel to be under attack by the world’s most powerful fighter jets.
Tone borders on corny, and while the detailed attention to the procedures of each exercise is unmistakable, the initial exercise sequence is made a mess in the editing, with the second dogfight much more clearly delineated. War’s pyrotechnic hellishness is pushed in your face care of William Reeve’s lensing, but that doesn’t lessen the pic’s profile as a recruitment tool.