It’s Kiefer Sutherland, and he’s playing a government employee named Jack who plays by his own rules. And it’s not 24. In 1998’s Ground Control, Sutherland plays air traffic controller Jack Harris, who — through no fault of his own — is at the controls when a plane loses control and crashes, killing all on board. Harris is traumatized by the event, and quits to become a software programmer (working on flight sims from the little we see) until his friend and co-worker T.C. Bryant (Bruce McGill) calls him back to work one New Year’s Eve when the control center in Phoenix is swamped with an above-average number of planes and an incoming storm.
I’m sure it’s possible to make an entertaining, exciting movie out of air traffic control, but this most certainly isn’t it.
You notice it’s always the holidays when planes have trouble in movies? August must be really relaxing for air traffic control.
Ground Control was a direct-to-video film, and it shows. It feels an awful lot like the not-so-special “Sunday Night Specials” that the big three networks used to air in the 80s, just with a slightly larger budget. Keifer Sutherland doesn’t overact and tries to play his character fairly realistically, but the script isn’t working with him, and neither is the musical direction. Harris has more flashbacks than a Vietnam vet, and each one is punctuated by DRAMATIC STINGS that are so overwrought they’re downright comical. And it’s not helped by the fact that, in order to keep the drama at MAXIMUM INTENSITY everything that can go wrong that night does, no matter how ludicrous it is. There’s a guy who cracks up worse than Harris, there are power failures, equipment failures on both the control center and the planes, and at one point an amateur pilot who doesn’t even know how to turn on his transponder flies into their air space. Had it focused on a single crisis, the film might have worked, at least a little; as it is, it’s just far too ridiculous to take seriously.
I had to take a picture of the goose that took out the antenna, or I don’t think anyone would have believed me.
The other characters in the film are mostly there just for Harris’s personality to bounce off of. Bruce McGill is a decent actor, but there’s not much room in his “reasonable leader” character for him to work with. Kelly McGillis is convincing as the hard-nosed, overconfident supervisor who gradually learns what it takes to keep the control center running, but it’s a character we’ve seen in hundreds of films like this. Robert Sean Leonard plays Cruise, another controller who is very good at his job but has poor people skills; he’s there to act as a contrast to Harris, who gets too caught up in the fact that peoples’ lives hang in the balance, and Leonard does a good job of making us want to slap Cruise upside the head without actually hating him. Henry Winkler is probably the most entertaining of the cast as Quinn, the center’s beleaguered, smart-ass technician who has to keep the place running without an adequate budget or equipment. McGillis’s Susan is the target of most of his barbs, and in a better movie, it might have been possible for the two to develop this into something entertaining, but since McGillis’s character is so flat here, it just doesn’t happen. Kristy Swanson plays Julie Albrecht, a rookie thrown in way over her head; she mostly serves to give Jack someone to give pep talks to so he can, by proxy, give pep talks to himself.
She’s also there to look pretty. I’m not complaining; this movie needs all the help it can get.
Somewhere, there might have been a germ of an idea here that could have been made into a decent movie. And all the actors are solid B-list actors at worst, easily capable of playing interesting characters and developing some on-screen chemistry. But the script is dull and the plot is absurd, and that’s a combination that kills any potential this film may have had.