Review: ‘Last Flight Home’ measures a father’s life in love
Is it possible for a documentary to be too intimate, too personal, too painful? Well, by definition, it shouldn’t be. But in the case of writer-director Ondi Timoner’s immersive “Last Flight Home,” which counts down the final 15 days of her 92-year-old father, Eli, as he prepares for the end of his life, less might have been more.
That’s not to say this often courageous and profound film is without many strengths as it lovingly honors both the life and death of its subject, who, wracked by acute pulmonary disease and the residual effects of a massive stroke suffered 40 years earlier, chose to utilize California’s End of Life Option Act. (Enacted in 2016, this law allows mentally and physically competent, terminally ill adults to self-administer physician-prescribed aid-in-dying drugs.)
Timoner’s extreme close-up of her beloved, immobilized, bedridden dad — a onetime business leader and philanthropist and the founder of the (long-defunct) 1970s-era upstart Air Florida (“Fly a Little Kindness!”) — rarely flinches from the physical and emotional complexities of Eli’s fraught situation. Nor does it evade the deepest feelings of her uber-devoted family members: her mother (and Eli’s second wife), Lisa; older sister Rachel, a Brooklyn rabbi; and brother David, a film and TV editor; as well as Eli and Lisa’s many grandchildren (including Ondi’s son, Joaquim). Still, the filmmaker (she also edited, worked camera and was a producer) does her best to offer as dignified and heartfelt a portrayal of her still-lucid dad’s demise as the vérité moments — mainly shot in early 2021 at Eli and Lisa’s modest Pasadena home — allow, even if the doc sometimes dips into self-indulgence.
Eli was clearly an amazingly kind, gentle, open-minded and inspiring man — who wouldn’t have wanted such a generous soul as a parent? But the endless declarations of, well, undying love from family and friends (many seen in Zoom and FaceTime chats) can become a bit much, even under these uniquely last-chance circumstances. A good 10-minute tightening might have magnified — instead of protracted — the movie’s poignancy.
Timoner (“Dig!,” “We Live in Public,” “Mapplethorpe”) weaves in bits of archival and family photos and footage as she flashes back to Eli’s past, though the film mostly lives in the present. Career-wise, he was a big deal — until he wasn’t: In 1982, after his stroke (the result of a severe neck injury during a weekly massage), the Air Florida board asked him to resign as CEO, claiming his disability would be a corporate liability. (Imagine how that would go down today.)
Money troubles, including a bankruptcy filing, followed for Eli and Lisa and, though details provided here are limited, it seems as if finances remained an ongoing struggle for the couple.
There’s an inevitable checklist feeling to much of the film, maybe as a result of its day-to-day countdown structure added to the many practical and emotional items Eli’s family, friends and caregivers must tick off before he dies. These include everyone saying goodbye, grandkids receiving life lessons from their departing “Pop Pop” and a few cathartic Jewish rituals. Affecting as it all is, some may find several moments uncomfortably candid.
It all leads up to Eli’s passing, captured in deeply sad and grueling detail from the difficult, time-sensitive intake of a batch of life-ending medication to the moment of death. It’s not something that’s often seen onscreen in such blunt, resolute fashion; whether it’s an experience viewers will want to witness is another matter.
Ultimately, and perhaps most beautifully, the film makes a case, à la the musical “Rent,” about how, in the end, we must measure our life in love. On that score, Eli Timoner left the world a very wealthy man.
'Last Flight Home'
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 14, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale
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