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On a Wing and a Prayer

MOVIE | Faith-based disaster film offers good production values—and religious clichés

Courtesy of Prime Video/Boris Martin

<em>On a Wing and a Prayer</em>
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➤ Rated PG
➤ Prime Video

On Easter Sunday 2009, Doug White and his family planned to fly home to Louisiana after traveling to Florida for his brother’s funeral. They arranged for a private plane to take them, but 10 minutes after takeoff their pilot suffered a heart attack, leaving the family on the brink of disaster. MGM Studios’ faith-based film On a Wing and a Prayer dramatizes Doug’s harrowing attempt to land the plane and save his family.

This crisis begins a third of the way through the movie. Doug (Dennis Quaid) is a successful man with a beautiful family, but he struggles with his faith after losing his brother. His wife Terri (Heather Graham) futilely tries to comfort him with Scripture. Flying in a plane at 10,000 feet without a pilot proves to be an additional test of faith neither expected.

A storm is brewing in the Gulf, and air traffic control doesn’t have much hope for guiding Doug through the steps involved in landing a twin-engine plane. But an unlikely team forms to aid the desperate family. One of the controllers calls a friend in Connecticut who’s logged thousands of hours on that model plane. The friend on the phone tells the controller what to do, and the controller relays instructions to Doug. Through trusting in someone he cannot see, Doug learns to let go of his fear and trust God.

It’s not really a spoiler for me to say that Terri gets the miracle she prayed for and everyone—except the original pilot—arrives back at the airport safely.

Sean McNamara, who worked with Quaid on Soul Surfer (2011), directs the movie, and this film is another example of the faith-based genre getting marginally better. On a Wing and a Prayer boasts respectable production values with bona fide (albeit aging) stars.

The sets feel authentic, and while the special effects won’t win prizes, they aren’t bad for a straight-to-streaming film. Some of the performers, especially Graham, might be guilty of overacting—but let’s be honest, some of us Southerners really are that over the top.

On a Wing and a Prayer has so much going for it. It’s a shame the script is such an awful mess.

Being based on a true story gives this disaster movie a built-in sense of urgency, but the film piles on more problems than the real family endured. Some stretch credulity. The movie also squanders its promising setup by bouncing around to the various characters who will help in the rescue. These introductions confuse the viewer because, at first, it’s not clear how these characters relate to the plot. Eventually most of the threads come together, but I say “most” because one subplot never justifies its inclusion.

Jesus doesn’t promise His followers physical safety, temporal happiness, and healthy relationships.

In true faith-based-movie fashion, the script invents a crisis of faith or inner turmoil for each character. The much-prayed-for miracle inspires everyone who witnessed it to do better. These pious clichés strike me as a soft prosperity gospel.

In too many of these movies, someone prays and receives some sort of temporal blessing. It’s not always the success they hoped for, but it’s success nonetheless. Faith-based films are littered with people who begin the movie with bad family relationships. By the end of the movie, someone’s had a change of heart because their “faith has been restored”—whatever that means—and suddenly bad family relationships are good. Faith gets discussed with vague language about God’s goodness or power or mere existence. Doubts and fears are conquered, but precious little gets said about Jesus’ mission to save sinners.

These stories offer a cheap simulacrum of Jesus’ gospel. Jesus doesn’t promise His followers physical safety, temporal happiness, and healthy relationships. Often He promises the opposite. Once upon a time, the Church took its inspiration from the stories of the martyrs, who prayed in the midst of adversity and remained faithful in the face of death. What does it say about contemporary Christianity that we want inspiring stories about religious victories in the here and now? It’s almost as if our faith no longer rests on what is unseen.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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