The Grey

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

2 July

Amelia Earhart disappears, 1937

On this day in 1937, the pioneering 39-year-old female aviator (aviatrix, if you prefer) disappeared on a flight circumnavigating the globe. Flying around the world can be accomplished by taking a variety of routes (Howard Hughes had “flown around the world” in 1938 by circling the northern hemisphere, and theoretically could be achieved by circling the North or South Pole, a minute’s work), but Earhart was planning to do it the longest way by circling the equator.

Earhart had been breaking flying records almost since she had first learnt to fly, in 1920, her first record coming in 1922, when she broke an altitude record for an aviatrix. She had been famous since being part of a transatlantic flight in 1927 and had been dubbed Lady Lindy by the press, who were obsessed with pilot Charles Lindbergh at the time. Earhart was photogenic, and used her fame to win advertising deals, the money from which she used to finance her flying. In August 1928 she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. In May 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Between 1930 and 1935 she also set seven women’s speed and distance records.

Her 1937 equatorial circumnavigation was intended to put her in the record books as a pilot first, woman second. Her first attempt stalled at the first leg after an equipment malfunction. Her second attempt, jumping from Oakland, California, to Miami, Florida and then on to South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, had taken her 22,000 miles (35,000km) with only 7,000 miles (11,000km) remaining.

Her plane disappeared en route for Howland Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific. Her plane went down in the Pacific, out of fuel and lost. Her radio signals were being picked up by a US Coast Guard ship, which was responding, but Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan – possibly because they didn’t understand the new radio navigation system – could not hear the ship’s reply, nor its instructions as to the whereabouts of the island. They were only five miles from the island, and were combing the ocean on a north/south line, but lost. In spite of the most expensive air and sea search in history, they were never found.

The Grey (2011, dir: Joe Carnahan)

On his way back to civilisation with a bunch of rowdies he has nothing in common with, a terminally fatalistic/seriously suicidal oil worker greets the fact that the plane he’s on is suddenly in dire trouble with a shrug. “You’re going to die,” the grizzled Ottway (Liam Neeson) tells a shit scared co-worker, “it will feel warm.” Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan then treats us to one of those intensely realistic air crashes that Hollywood has become adept at staging (Lost, Flight, United 93) – all chaos and panic, stuff dangling all over the place – and, boom, we’re on the ground, in the snow, with dead people scattered about. The survivors crawl out of the wreckage, only gradually realising that they’ve miraculously survived falling thousands of feet out of the sky only to die down here on the ground in the freezing cold, as they’re picked off one by one by a ravening pack of wolves who have smelt the mayhem and arrived to pick up some takeaway.

The prologue over, The Grey then settles down for the long haul, a cat and mouse movie using wolves and humans. If it’s Jaws with a pack-mentality foe, then Ottway is its Quint, a dead-eyed loner who is useless in normal situations where social niceties are required. But give him danger… And like Quint, Ottway’s strength is derived from the fact that he isn’t afraid to die, might even welcome it in fact. The strength of The Grey derives in part from the fact that we already know this, it’s been told to us just before and during the opening plane-crash sequence which at the time – since it was so lavish and well choreographed – looked like being what the film was all about. This piece of dramatic blind-siding really pays off as we enter this second, snowy phase of the film and Ottway and co are trying to survive while the wolves circle.

Don’t look at the wolves too closely. For some reason Hollywood seems stuck on the American Werewolf in London moodboard when it comes to depictions of our lupine friends. Instead watch the men, who we are introduced to individually, as in a war film, as they voice hopes and fears, talk about the big questions, as people tend to do in the movies when they’re faced with their own extinction. Personally, I could do without the gigantic drops into sentimentality which seem to act as punctuations between the more thoughtful disquisitions, and I’m not one of those people who think this is one of the best films of its year. But The Grey is a very good existential B movie – tight, lean, simple, gripping, and it keeps us hanging on till the end, speculating as to how long Ottway’s suicidal energy is going to act as a force field around him, wondering who’s going to die next. When. How. Right to the very last shot. Watch to the very end of the credits, in other words. Nicely done.

Why Watch?

  • One of Neeson’s great “geri-action” roles
  • Masanobu Takayanagi’s impressive cinematography
  • A barely recognisable Dermot Mulroney
  • Those unforgiving British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) locations

The Grey – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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