On a Wing and a Prayer is a creatively rocky flight that will put you to sleep

On a Wing and a Prayer (Prime Video)

This faith-based flight starring Dennis Quaid is one you can safely skip.

It’s 2009: Owl City changed the way people looked at fireflies, America was gripped by the reality TV exploits of a couple with eight kids. Oh, and an ordinary man with little flying experience named Doug White had to land a private plane with his family onboard after the pilot fell unconscious. The year of Balloon Boy was a wild one. 

That unbelievable true story is the crux of On a Wing and a Prayer. This faith-based drama depicts White (Dennis Quaid) as a Louisianan pharmacist and Christian who loves his family (including his wife Terri (Heather Graham) and a pair of teenage daughters), God, and barbeque. However, his faith is shaken after the sudden loss of his brother. Terri piles up the whole family into a private plane trip in a bid to boost her partner’s spirits…which is when Doug finds himself in a situation he could’ve never imagined. Now tasked with landing the plane, this guy will have to deal with radioed advice from several different aircraft controllers and veteran pilots, not to mention his relationship with God.

On a Wing and a Prayer would really like to be Unstoppable. Both titles are about forms of transportation that go horribly awry while their stories cut back and forth between technicians trying to solve the problem and unexpected heroes on the ground tasked with rectifying the situation. That’s where the similarities end, though. Unstoppable was the final masterpiece from director Tony Scott, an exquisite piece of tension-driven cinema. On a Wing and a Prayer, meanwhile, is about as suspenseful as a tedious sermon that’s gone on too long.

A large chunk of the problem falls on the shoulders of director Sean McNamara, a filmmaker largely experienced in Disney Channel Original Movies and a slew of kid-friendly titles that went straight to home video. It’s commendable that he’d want to step outside his comfort zone a bit for what’s on paper a suspense thriller, but he doesn’t demonstrate any effort in generating tension behind the camera. On a Wing and a Prayer is incredibly flat-looking and visual choices like recurring split-screens only inspire giggles, rather than the sense of dread you’d expect.

On a Wing and a Prayer (Prime Video)
On a Wing and a Prayer (Prime Video)

McNamara and editor Jeff Canavan’s work contains so little vigor that they even botch a montage! This form of condensed storytelling can be such a reliable source of fun or tension that offers a window into the mind of a key character, like the unforgettable “Hungry Eyes” sequence in Dirty Dancing. Here, the efforts of fellow passenger Ashley (Anna Enger Ritch) to craft a homemade cockpit for her husband lack any pizzazz. There’s no sense of excitement as one shot limply leads into the next, even as the lives of innocent people hang in the balance. She might as well be doing Saturday afternoon laundry. If On a Wing and a Prayer could mess up a montage sequence that badly, then it’s no wonder the rest of the movie is so inert.

At least the generic filmmaking is appropriately consistent with Brian Egeston’s rote screenplay, which fails to juggle the disparate plotlines of the movie in a meaningful way. Especially egregious is a subplot involving a teenage girl obsessed with airplanes. Though we keep cutting back to her, she never has any impact on the main plot, nor does she ever interact with Doug. In a movie running this long, such an egregiously superfluous subplot is inexcusable.

Egeston’s writing is especially bad at balancing out the suspense thriller aspects with its PureFlix inclinations. Don’t let the three separate references to sex (between married people, though) in the first 16 minutes fool you: This is still a motion picture looking to deliver ham-fisted theological lessons. In this case, White’s big character flaw is that he turns away from God in times of crisis, only finding solace in the air once he releases himself to a higher power.

On a Wing and a Prayer (Prime Video)
On a Wing and a Prayer (Prime Video)

McNamara clumsily intersperses these moments with derivative melodrama concerning the plane, but they’re also just poorly conceived on their own merits. The film explains away White’s initial hatred of God late in the film as borne of family tragedy, as a convenient if-then to explain how he will inevitably have his come-to-Jesus moment in this time of crisis. Later attempts to have White vehemently resist prayer and dismiss other people’s faith feel shoehorned in, as if Egeston worried about losing the God’s Not Dead crowd if he didn’t hammer home the “evil” traits of this character.

As a human drama, On a Wing and a Prayer comes across as cold and sterile, an issue only compounded by stilted dialogue occasionally cruising to the altitude of unintentional hilarity. (The aforementioned teenage plane fan flatly remarking “If I can’t see it, I don’t believe in it!” got a giggle out of me).

While some dismal faith-based features, like Assassin 33 A.D., make for hysterical movie night viewings with lots of friends, On a Wing and a Prayer is a subpar entry in a genre that more often feels tedious. Not even the occasional glimpses of Dennis Quaid’s unique smile or an inexplicable use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in its climax (complete with all its bawdy lyrics) can make On a Wing and a Prayer worth viewing. Surely there are better movies about notable events from 2009 that one could be watching instead. Bring on the Owl City biopic!

On a Wing and a Prayer is currently streaming on Prime Video.

On a Wing and a Prayer Trailer:

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Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman (she/her) is a life-long movie fan whose byline has appeared in outlets like Polygon, Consequence, ScarleTeen, Collider, Fangoria, Looper, and, of course, The Spool. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Lisa adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any songs by Carly Rae Jepsen.

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