In Jan. 2021, Eli Timoner, 92, decided to make use of California’s End of Life Option law. His daughter, the award-winning documentary director Ondi Timoner (“We Live in Public”) did not start out to make a feature about Eli’s and her family’s journey to the end, but she has. “Last Flight Home,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is many things, all of them compelling. It is a tribute, a grappling with mortality, an exercise in self-surveillance, a messy home movie, a brief account of aviation history and a lesson in letting go and grief.
In 1982, Eli Timoner had been flying high. His wife, Elissa and their kids — Rachel, Ondi and David — were thriving. Air Florida, the regional carrier he’d co-founded and was president of had grown considerably. In February of that year, he appeared on “Good Morning America” with host David Hartman asking him questions about his ambitions for the company. Six months later, he had a devastating stroke from a freak accident that left his left side paralyzed.
Quickly, Lisa Timoner and the kids rallied. Nearly as quickly, their upscale lifestyle waned. In 1983, Timoner resigned his post, citing the slowness of his recovery. “Last Flight Home” gives the contours of Eli’s success and traumatic decline. And the movie elicits thoughts about money and status. Using home movies, newspaper clippings and news footage, the film underscores what a titan he had been. But perhaps most significantly, the look back shows that “T-Team” — the name Elissa and the kids gave themselves during that crisis — is rallying again. As Lisa Timoner says, “T-Team has reassembled to help Daddy onto his next adventure.”
Much of that adventure unfolds in the living-room of Eli and Lisa’s modest bungalow in California. His hospital bed is set up in the middle of the living-room, which becomes the locus of all kinds of activity. Grandkids come to say farewell to “Pop Pop.” Friends arrive on Zoom to reminisce and wish him well on his transition. His hospice caregiver tends to him. With an oxygen tube traveling to his nose, Eli lays under blankets, sometimes dozing, sometimes cracking wise, often making sure they are moving ahead toward his goal.
California law mandates a 15-day waiting period that begins after two doctors have confirmed that the person requesting the option is of sound mind, that they are terminally ill but well enough to end their life with aid-in-dying drugs but with no physical assistance. Although Eli’s determined, honoring his wishes is not a simple undertaking: logistically, emotionally, ethically. “Last Flight Home” makes it clear that some hospice doctors and nurses harbor ambivalence about, even opposition to, the option. And as much as Eli’s children and friends support his decision, they can’t help but check in about his resolve.
It’s clear that Ondi Timoner wants us to see Eli the way she and her siblings do: as a wry, sharp-witted, socially upstanding and loving soul. “Last Flight” shows him as remarkable, not simply because of the business he built in the 1970s, but also because of who he became, how he persevered, after the stroke. That doesn’t mean he’s without thorns: During a Zoom visit with daughter Rachel, the rabbi of a Reform Jewish temple in Brooklyn, Eli shares some rather uncensored thoughts about the former U.S. president. Wonderfully caught off guard, Rachel gently, genially cuts him off.
Each of the grown Timoner children brings some deep aspect of themselves, some personal skill to this undertaking. Ondi contributes a documentarian’s instinct for the revealing detail and respect for the power of gently asked questions. She and her father’s interactions are the most physically tender. David has long managed the logistics and finances of his parents’ care; his respectful solicitousness shows. But it’s Rachel who brings a spiritual and inclusive depth to “Last Flight Home.”
She becomes her father’s rabbi in his final days. She does this with grace but also an awareness that this tango between spiritual guide and loving, aching daughter will not be an easy one. As loving as he’s been, as beloved as he appears to be, Eli is carrying a lot of shame into his last days. Witnessing Rachel help Eli navigate and then lay down the weight of an awful and unnecessary burden is one of the great gifts of a movie with no shortage of insights into family, ritual and departures.