Always (1989)

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In Always, Richard Dreyfuss plays a pilot named Pete who has to cope with his own death (after the fact) and help guide a young pilot named Ted (Brad Johnson) learn the profession as well as fall in love with Pete’s girlfriend, Dorinda (Holly Hunter).

Like plenty of other Spielberg films, it toes the line between outrageous good fun and tragedy.  There’s a real, human story going on here as people cope with Pete’s death, mainly Pete himself.  But at the same time, the story is more concerned with the fantastical elements of a life after death.  There are several jokes as Pete realizes what kind of power a ghost has, particularly the ability to tell people something and then have them internalize it as their own thought.  In one scene, for example, Pete’s ghost tells a guy that he’s pretty funny looking.  A moment later the guy catches his reflection in a mirror and seems discouraged.

So the movie bounces around tonally.  I think many Spielberg films do that, trying to balance real drama with humor.  It doesn’t not work here, I actually kind of enjoyed this film, but a lot of the story felt conventional.  The structure is very neat and orderly, and it has the effect of making Pete’s death somewhat routine.  It’s not shocking when he dies, mainly because he accepts it surprisingly quickly, which he must in order for the story to move on to the fun stuff.

It’s like how a character might get shot in a movie and then recover pretty quickly or at least grit his or her teeth and move on.  In reality that gunshot wound would be horribly detrimental, putting that person on forced bedrest or in a coma or generally just crippling them.

Anyways, in this movie, Pete and his buddy Al (John Goodman) are pilots who drop tons of water on forrest fires.  It doesn’t seem like all that dangerous of a job, but in this movie it seems like they’re flirting with death every time they go in the air.  Well, at least Pete is.  On his first mission that we see, he runs out of fuel because he underestimated how long it would last him.  That feels like a horrible, rookie mistake, one he should never make as an advanced pilot.  So we think this is when he’s going to die, but he miraculously lands the plane.  This allows us to see how worshipped he is and to introduce us to his relationship with Dorinda.  It also introduces the young pilot, Ted, but he mostly stands on the sidelines.

Dorinda makes Pete promise to give up his piloting career and to instead teach at a pilot school in Flat Rock, Colorado.  It’s safer but more boring.  After a brief fight, Pete complies.  The next morning Al enlists him in another “mission,” when a couple other pilots are sick.  The music and Dorinda’s expression make it clear this is when Pete is going to die.  Also, time-wise, it’s near the end of the first act, so we know this is when he has to die for the rest of the story to begin.

Al gets in some trouble, Pete saves him, and in doing so he gets himself killed.  Pete is then introduced to Hap (Audrey Hepburn) a sort of Angel/God figure who tells him everything he needs to know.  It’s one of those talk-heavy expository scenes like the ones in the Indiana Jones movies that’s sped through so the rest of the movie can take place, no questions asked.  Basically, Pete is now a ghost/angel and it’s his job to help the people who are still alive.  It turns out when he was flying a plane, he wasn’t the only one.  He was really being helped by other spirits whose advice to him was filtered to come through as one of Pete’s own thoughts.  So anytime you have a great idea, a spirit probably gave it to you.

Well Pete has to help Ted, apparently.  Ted is really just a younger version of Pete, cemented by the fact that Ted develops an attraction to Dorinda, Pete’s gal.  Everything at first is kind of playful as Pete gets used to his new environment, taking to it pretty well, actually.  In a screenplay this would be the “fun & games” section of the story, and it’s where most of the trailer moments tend to come from, advertising why you should see the movie.

Well Ted tries to become a pilot like Pete, and he ends up stationed at the same place as Dorinda and where Pete used to be.  Of course he falls for Dorinda, and Pete is bothered by this.  Dorinda and Ted’s budding romance, though is undeniable.  It’s Pete’s duty to let go of his own desires and start to give rather than to take.

In one moment early on, spirit Pete whispers to Dorinda, “you’re still my girl” after she begins to be attracted to Ted.  This makes her soft smile fade into a look of guilt.  It demonstrates that Pete is a little selfish, and by the end he inevitably lets her go and move on.

I don’t understand how the spiritual world works.  If, when people die, they are meant to remain around to help people, it seems like it would just be torture for them to watch everyone they know go about their lives and to be unable to communicate with them.  It’s a bit horrifying.  But spirits are supposed to be helpful and giving, or we just like to think of them that way.  So at first I saw it as, when you become a spirit, you remain around the people you knew in order to help them, but you’re not emotionally drained by the realization that you can never talk to them, so in a way you’re constantly on a drug, one that doesn’t take away from your spatial awareness but makes you sort of okay with everything.  It makes sense, after all death is supposed to be peaceful and, again, Pete takes the news that he’s dead pretty damn well.

But when Dorinda and Ted begin dating, Pete feels tortured while watching it.  This clearly bothers him as it would anyone, I presume.  So this makes me wonder why spirits have to stay near the people they knew if they can still feel so pained by watching them move on.  Shouldn’t Pete be sent to, maybe Spain or something to help someone there?  He might be more productive that way.

Well, he is able to move on, and the point is to show that the spirits remain where they spent the most time and have the deepest roots, so that all makes some sense, I guess.  It just feels difficult to imagine all these spirits hanging around, watching people move on and forget them.  Well, then again the movie’s title comes from a conversation with Dorinda and Pete where they talk about being with each other “always.”  So really I’m probably just projecting here.  I think it would be hard for me, if I were in Pete’s situation.  The whole thing feels horrifying, but Pete’s a cool dude, he can handle it.

The script also feels like it speeds through the plot, running the motions to show parts of each character like a checklist.  Tedstops and save’s a bud driver’s life in a scene to show that, though he’s acting somewhat in opposition to Pete, he’s still a good guy, and this helps cement Dorinda’s affection for him.  In that scene, the bus driver momentarily dies, and suddenly his spirit appears besides Pete so that they can talk to each other.  It made me hopeful that when the bus driver came back to life, he could say “I JUST SAW A GHOST HE’S STANDING RIGHT THERE” and then he’d describe him, and Dorinda would realize Pete was right there.  That might have been a little cliche, but I at least enjoyed the film playing with the possibilities of Pete’s circumstances, like a “what if” scenario.  But the story never really went further down that road.

There’s also a scene where Pete finds an old guy, as he follows Ted around, who hears what Pete says and says it back.  It’s a huge discovery because Pete can explicitly say what he wants and try to communicate through this guy, but it never goes further.  Those moments were what I wanted to see more of, to see where the story could go.  Instead it settled for a more conventional story about Pete just helping Ted and Dorinda with their lives, which is fine, but it was predictable.

It’s funny that it felt sped through, the script I mean, considering the movie is over 2 hours long.

So the movie has its moments, it’s pretty funny, the performances are good, but it left me with a feeling that it never fully explored its premise.  Maybe this is an indication of where Spielberg’s films are heading.  Up until this point in his career, his characters were mostly vivid and exciting.  I’m thinking of the characters in Jaws and Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters as he watches his family life break down due to his alien-induced insanity.

But in Always, everything is neat, like Spielberg didn’t want to really push or challenge his characters.  They’re just there, with some funny moments but no real revealing moments. I’m not sure if his later films are like this, I’m currently rapidly scanning my memory of his more recent films, but based on which of his movies are considered his best (his earlier work plus Saving Private Ryan), I feel like his movies might become more generic, still exciting but not as edgy or gripping as his earlier films.  This is all just a suspicion, who knows.

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