Shelter Island // 2013 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 27th, 2013
The true life story of a legendary flying pioneer.
Aviation is easily in the top ten most significant advancements of the twentieth century. Unlike most of the other major advancements, like integrated circuits and the internet, aviation had a real human cost to its development. Men and women strapped themselves into flying machines and tested new equipment or pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Many times they paid with their lives. That makes the life of Jimmy Doolittle all the more impressive. A military man who earned his doctorate in aviation on Uncle Sam's dime, Doolittle was at the forefront of aviation for several decades, establishing a number of records and winning numerous medals and awards. Perhaps more importantly for civilians, Doolittle is largely responsible for instrumental navigation of airplanes, meaning we can talk off and land even with low visibility. Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story is a documentary about the life and career of this remarkable aviator, told by his relative Gardner Doolittle with the help of archival photos. It's a long-overdue look at one of the world's most decorated pilots, but technical problems keep this from being a must-see documentary.
There's nothing wrong with presenting a documentary as basically a story, told by one person over the course of 90 or so minutes. Some people are gifted storytellers, and it can be a great way to convey information. However, two big problems hamper Wings of a Warrior.
The first problem is that there's nothing particularly compelling about the telling of this story. Jimmy Doolittle's life is one of excitement and adventure. That doesn't mean, however, that it's impossible to tell a boring story about him. Wings of a Warrior is a long, slow slog through the man's life, narrated by third cousin Gardner Doolittle. Accompanying his narration are a series of photos, both of Jimmy Doolittle and his historical context. To keep such a monotonous presentation from getting boring, the narrator needs to keep things alive, but Gardner largely fails at the task. It feels very much like he's reading an historical essay rather than telling us the story of the world's greatest flyer. Though the film opens on the dark days of Pearl Harbor (when Jimmy Doolittle was already in his forties), it fails to build any real tension or take the story in unexpected directions. It's much more akin to being trapped at a family holiday with a drunken uncle telling stories of his glory days than it is an expert storyteller giving you the history of one of history's great flying aces.
That would almost be forgivable -- Jimmy Doolittle's story is compelling, even when the telling is lackluster -- but a glaring technical error makes this DVD a chore to sit through. The sound recording on this documentary is simply awful. It starts at the beginning, and at first I was hoping it was a simple problem with location sound, but it continues throughout the film. It sounds as though the audio has been severely compressed, like someone left the sound deck on the wrong settings throughout the recording process. It gives the whole track a high-pitched whine that destroys a lot of the sibilants, rendering Gardner difficult to understand at times. The mix is also a bit low, meaning turning up the volume accentuates Gardner's voice but also makes the problems with the recording more apparent. This kind of issue is acceptable in catch-as-catch-can location recording, but for material recorded for voiceover there's no excuse to hear audio this artefacted.
Jimmy Doolittle's story really is a remarkable bit of history. Not only is he significant to the field of aviation, but thanks to his insights and skills we all can appreciate the advances in aviation he helped usher in. Though it's disappointing as a documentary, Wings of a Warrior makes it clear that Doolittle's story could be the basis of a crack documentary (as it has already been the basis of several Hollywood films).
At least the video portion of the DVD is solid, with a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that showcases the archival photos in a decent resolution. Contemporary footage of Gardner Doolittle looks like it was recorded on a prosumer camera, so it's not tack-sharp, but that's not the fault of the transfer. A short interview with Doolittle is included that sheds some light on Gardner's interest, though it suffers from the same audio problems that plague the feature.
Flying guru Jimmy Doolittle's story is a wonderful of American history that covers everything from our involvement in World War I all the way up through the years of the Reagan White House. It was Ronnie himself who pinned the final set of stars on Doolittle's shoulder, making him a general in retirement. For those who can deal with poorly captured audio, Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story does a decent job of presenting that history. It's not as compelling as it could be, but the facts are definitely there. Because of the technical issues, though, it's hard to recommend anything beyond a rental for this disc.
Jimmy Doolittle is acquitted, even if Wings of a Warrior is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shelter Island
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated