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How ‘On A Wing And A Prayer’ succeeds in Hollywood

Amazon Studios’ new film “On a Wing and a Prayer” succeeds both as a faith-based film and mainstream inspirational drama, hopefully setting a new standard for faith-based representation in Hollywood.

The film follows passenger Doug White’s (Dennis Quaid) harrowing journey to safely land a plane and save his entire family from insurmountable danger after their pilot dies unexpectedly mid-flight.

Much has been said about the “faith-based film” industry. Christians feel unrepresented in Hollywood movies, so they’ve attempted over the past nearly 20 years to create an alternative “faith-based film industry” of their own. And while many continue to debate its virtues and flaws (including myself), there’s no denying the rise of quality and financial success with movies and TV shows like this year’s “Jesus Revolution” and third season of “The Chosen.”

Less has been said about Hollywood’s faltering attempts to make their own faith-based movies. Upon seeing the success of movies like “The Passion of The Christ” and “Facing The Giants,” Hollywood saw how much money can be made from the faith-based market and tried to get in on that. It’s had modest financial success with inspirational dramas like “Miracles from Heaven,” but otherwise these films — Biblical blockbusters and cheesy dramas — have produced financial disappointment and ire from Christians.

If the Christian film industry’s main problem is understanding faith but not filmmaking, Hollywood’s main problem is understanding filmmaking but not faith.

In pretty much every way, though, “On A Wing And A Prayer” sticks the landing (pun absolutely intended).

Unlike most faith-based dramas, this movie is actually really entertaining. Most faith-based films are all drama and tears, and where they do try to be funny, they fail.

The dialogue in “On a Wing and a Prayer” is funny and witty (and sometimes sexy in a family-friendly way), and the story moves at a brisk pace. The characters are likable, and their arcs throughout the story, while not terribly original, feel like the stories of real people. They wrestle with loss, family drama and faith the way real people do. Even when it’s predictable or corny, it still remains deeply entertaining.

The filmmaking is also refreshingly well-executed. The quick editing back and forth between the different parties trying to save the plane and all the individual storylines keeps the drama from feeling repetitive. One particularly simple but still effective trick was a pan from Doug to someone else at the end and back, which served as an effective device for a “message” moment from a dead character without feeling overly cheesy in its presentation.

The acting is solid, with Quaid as the obvious standout, showing both deep likability and a compelling cocktail of stubborn determination and intense vulnerability that elevates the material. He’s now starred in multiple entries in this genre: “Soul Surfer” (also directed by Sean McNamara), “I Can Only Imagine,” “Blue Miracle” and the upcoming “Reagan” biopic. I think it’s safe to say he’s becoming faith-based drama royalty.

These elements may seem like bare minimum expectations for any movie — but this is the first movie in this genre that I can remember to nail it so effortlessly.

All this would be breaking new ground for faith-based dramas. But where it especially shines is in its portrayal of faith itself. Typically, Hollywood films water down the faith of the protagonists or make it clumsy and overbearing, but this film showed the main characters interacting with their faith in a way that was central to their lives while also feeling seamless and natural. Every moment of faith was connected to some emotion or experience that anyone could relate to, and the fact that they reacted to it with faith so naturally was simply a reflection of their values. Frankly, it reminded me a lot of my own family.

It seems to me the portrayal of faith in this movie is the kind of portrayal of faith that would resonate with believers without being offensive to nonbelievers, and therefore something Hollywood could replicate into more movies. Faith is a huge part of a lot of people’s lives, and Hollywood’s typical silent erasure of that part of life is a kind of dishonesty. That dishonesty is part of why a separate faith-based industry was born in the first place.

There are a lot of touches that I could imagine becoming standard for the Hollywood faith-based melodrama going forward — for example, using mainstream beloved songs that talk about God or Jesus. “On a Wing and a Prayer” uses the classic rock song “Spirit in the Sky” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” very successfully.

Of course, the movie isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue — particularly the faith-based dialogue — is on the nose and corny. (“Sometimes you just have to have faith in something you can’t see” stuck out as particularly clumsy.) The movie leans obnoxiously on the tired “bratty teenage daughter stuck on her phone” trope without any real nuance.

I and other Christian critics often complain about how the only faith-based movies are inspirational melodramas, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for inspirational melodramas. They should just be good when they’re made — and “On a Wing and a Prayer” is one of the best. Hopefully filmmakers use it as a model to make many more like it.

“On a Wing and a Prayer” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

–Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.


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