If He Could Leap He Would
I will be the first to admit that disaster inspired made for TV movies are often quite bad, suffering from poor special effects, poor acting and a general lack of tension. But as TV movies go "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" is a bit special because whilst it has problems it does one thing brilliantly and that is to create tension. When things become desperate as we watch Jay on the verge of giving up you can sense the tension, you can feel the atmosphere not just between Jay and commercial pilot Gordon as he tries to assist him but also amongst the passengers aboard Gordon's flight. And as things move to their dramatic ending you are pulled to the edge of your seat in anticipation, it is this, this creation of atmosphere which makes "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" better than your average TV disaster movie.
Jay (Scott Bakula - Blue Smoke) loves the thrill of flying and when he along with his friend Frank (Alan Fletcher) are offered a job to fly two light airplanes from America to Australia he jumps at the chance despite objections from his pregnant wife. It is a trip full of danger and when Frank crashes his plane as he tries to take off from the airport of Pago Pago Jay is ready to turn back but is urged on. 14 hours later Jay discovers that his navigational equipment has failed and not only is he lost he has only a few hours of fuel left. With no idea of where he is Jay is contacted by Gordon (Robert Loggia - Over the Top), a pilot of a commercial flight carrying passengers who tries to track him down and bring him down safely before he is forced to put the plane in the sea.
So "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" is inspired by a true story from 1978 although many of the facts have been changed to make it work as a dramatic movie. But it is a well worked story nicely constructed with moments of drama to keep us glued to what is happening. I say glued but in truth it is not until about 40 minutes before it really grabs us which is the first real moment of drama which is Frank unable to take off from Pago Pago with his small plane crashing in to the sea.
What follows on from there is Jay discovering that his navigational equipment has malfunctioned and after 14 hours of flying is lost. Now what makes this interesting is the way Gordon in his commercial plane tries to work out where Jay is. It is fascinating to watch the old fashioned skills used from both flying towards the sun so that Jay can calibrate his compass through to using a fist against a setting sun to work out the distance away. There is simply something which captures your attention when these ingenious ways of navigation are used and when each one seems to work it does encourage you as an audience.
Of course whilst all this is going on "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" becomes quite typically a two man show as Jay talks to Gordon across the radio and a real friendship forms. There may be other people on Gordon's plane and the passengers play their part as tension causes arguments between them but it is the way Gordon and Jay connect which makes us take them into our hearts. And it also means that as Jay gets increasingly desperate and on the edge of giving up you can feel the sense of struggle that Gordon has, unable to help in a quick and easy fashion.
It's because we connect to how Jay and Gordon connect that the third part of the movie which as the title suggests is the actual rescue of Jay that we can really feel the tension. There may be some cheesy moments of macho nonsense but as Jay struggles in a plane not designed for flying through a storm and with no fuel you are drawn to the edge of your seats. The irony is that you know the outcome but yet you are still there egging on Jay to keep going. And what is a nice touch is at the end at Auckland airport 2 of the people in the crowd are the real Jay and Gordon.
Because of the way "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" works it is very much a two man show and both Scott Bakula as Jay and Robert Loggia as Gordon both deliver surprisingly good performances. From Bakula not only do we get the early characterisation of a thrill seeker who is almost fighting the inevitable as his wife Ellen is pregnant but we also get the sense of desperation as things become more and more dire. And then Loggia characterizes an old time pilot brilliantly and when he comes up with the old skills of navigation he sells them so they sound believable, not just in the fact that they work but also that he would come up with them.
What this all boils down to is that "Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771" is a bit of a pleasant surprise. As TV movies go it does have a few of the usual issues but it excels when it comes to creating tension which partly comes from good performances from Scott Bakula and Robert Loggia.