There's a lot going on in Airport, a time capsule for 1970s travel and social interaction. This adaptation of Arthur Hailey's novel mixes melodrama with the internal workings of a Chicagoland airport and adds a mid-air bomb scare to up the ante. Some of the romantic turbulence is laughable, but Airport remains a fascinating window into the little-seen magic happening backstage at busy airports. Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset and Helen Hayes are standouts in a stocked cast, and the film's visual effects and disaster elements set a new standard in Hollywood when Airport premiered.
Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld's (Lancaster) never-ending day continues when a jumbo jet makes a wrong turn while taxiing in a snowstorm and blocks his airport's main runway. Bakersfeld's wife and kids want him home, and his mistress and Trans Global Airlines public relations agent Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) tries to help him manage the mess, which includes a sassy, septuagenarian stowaway (Hayes). Tension peaks on land and in the sky when a depressed demolition expert (Van Heflin) boards a Rome-bound Boeing 707 with a bomb-laden attaché case, intending to blow up the plane so his wife can collect on his recently purchased life insurance policy.
Airport is, first and foremost, a melodrama about the lives of the captains, stewardesses and other airport staff that make the Chicago-area travel hub run smoothly. There's more double dealing and late-night liaisons than in an Alan Jackson song, with Bakersfeld juggling two women and married Capt. Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) struggling with the news that stewardess Gwen Meighen (Bisset) is carrying his child. Some of this human drama feels dated, but Airport visually depicts the tangled relationships humorously with split-screen images of the various parties. Airport operational procedure and disaster-film suspense come next, and the film does an exceptional job hopping around to various parts of the airport as mechanics and the ground crew struggle to free the trapped jet while high-level staff assess the hostage situation on the Rome flight.
So much of the story as it unfolds in Airport is no longer relatable in 2012. In 1970, passengers could not only smoke during their flights, but security was a far cry from the full-body searches travelers fear today. An airport guard notices the bomber nervously walking to his gate while clutching the explosive briefcase but does not detain him. Only later does he reluctantly inform Livingston, who finally tells Bakersfeld about the suspicious man. The ensuing struggle over whether to even confront the man, who Bakersfeld fears may be just a nervous flyer, is entertaining both on its face and because such a passenger would likely find himself face to face with a S.W.A.T. team in post-9/11 America.
At 137 minutes, Airport is a bit bloated, but the pace is consistent and the majority of the drama interesting. The air disaster takes over the second hour, and, while the suspense is not exactly nail-biting, the film's early character exploration allows the audience to actually care what happens to the key players aboard the flight. The effects, save a few shots where someone obviously held a model airplane in front of the camera, are quite good, and the use of real aircraft lends authenticity to the film.
Universal packed Airport with big names, which are prominently displayed in the film's advertising materials. Lancaster is especially good as the gruff, relatable airport manager, and Seberg's no-nonsense response to stowaway Ada Quonsett is entertaining. Hayes won an Oscar for best supporting actress in Airport, and her portrayal of Ada, who makes no apologies for her illegal activities, is memorable. Airport, with its mix of high drama and suspense, is the kind of film Hollywood stopped making in the 1980s. Some of the material is easy to lampoon (see Airplane!), but Airport is a flight worth taking.
Airport makes its debut on Blu-ray at long last with a 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that should satisfy viewers. Fortunately, Universal has not put Airport through the noise-reduction ringer, at least not to an unnecessary extent. The film's 1970s color scheme and visuals are a bit drab, but the transfer supports the snowy surroundings deftly. There is quite a bit of rich detail in the image: The fabrics of the stewardesses' uniforms are nicely textured, and even tiny cockpit components are easily visible. Black levels are solid for the most part, and the image remains steady during outdoor scenes in blowing snow. Airport uses numerous optical, split-screen effects, and these shots have a noticeably rougher appearance, which is to be expected. Colors are well saturated, though a couple of scenes appear strangely washed out. I did notice some minor instances of flicker, when the film appears a bit rough around the edges, in spots, but the print is largely free of debris and imperfections.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is quite boisterous for an older film. The airport terminal lends itself to directional dialogue and ambient effects, and the track makes good use of the surrounds. The roar of jet engines rattles the subwoofer, particularly doing a humorous shot of the noise pollution caused when planes use one of the airport's alternate runways, and Alfred Newman's score receives appropriate attention. Dialogue remains clear at all times, and I noticed little to no hiss. A French DTS mono mix is also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Airport arrives as part of Universal Studios' 100th Anniversary collection. The two-disc set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to download a digital copy on iTunes or Vudu. The case is wrapped in a glossy slipcover with a flap that opens to reveal information about the film and the studio in 1970.
Extras are very sparse, and only the theatrical trailer (3:27/SD) explicitly relates to the film. The disc also includes two featurettes: 100 Years of Universal: The '70s (11:01/HD) and 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25/HD). The first offers a brief look at some of the studio's biggest hits during the decade in which Airport was released, while the latter recalls the bustling studio lot as it existed at the time.
Airport offers a mix of melodrama, procedural intrigue and mid-air suspense not seen in films of late. Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset and Helen Hayes lead an all-star cast in this drama, which offers viewers a look back at air travel during the 1970s. Some of the romantic drama falls flat, but the film's intimate look at the workings of a major airport and its shift to disaster film in the second hour make up for any overplayed scenes. Universal offers Airport as part of its 100th Anniversary collection, and, while the extras are weak, the Blu-ray sports good picture and sound quality. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.