Review by Daniel Blackaby April 6, 2023
On a Wing and a Prayer (Christian Movie Review)
Verdict: While not always smooth flying, the film tells an inspiring story of faith and ultimately delivers a satisfying landing.
About The Movie
Being stranded with your family 17,000 feet in the air with a dead pilot and no experience landing an aircraft would increase the fervency of anyone’s religious faith. On a Wing and a Prayer tells the miraculous true story of a man named Doug White who found himself in that precise situation on Easter Sunday in 2009. Produced by Roma Downey and directed by Sean McNamara, the movie is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. As a film, it is not always smooth flying due to some clunky message-driven dialogue and an occasionally uncertain identity. Nevertheless, much like Doug White in the cockpit, it slowly finds its way and ultimately leads to a satisfying landing.
Well-known stars Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham appear in the lead roles, and the cast is rounded out by a collection of other talented actors. Even the film’s youngest cast members, a young flight enthusiast and her friend, are a total delight. Despite the occasional stink of “faith-based” films, On a Wing and a Prayer is no amateur hour; everything from the acting to the cinematography is on point.
The film is at its best when it allows the tense, real-life drama to unfold in the sky and on the ground. Things begin to go awry for the White family roughly 32 minutes into the runtime, leaving more than an hour for the “we need to land this plane” drama (which, ironically, is about twice as long as the actual flight). It’s a tall task to maintain tension for that long. Even Gerard Butler’s Plane, 2023’s other plane-in-crisis movie, devoted only a few minutes to the actual crash. Yet On a Wing and a Prayer successfully delivers an engrossing experience. Director Sean McNamara allows enough ebbs and flows in the story so that it never loses momentum. I felt emotional at the end, which is a rarity for me and a testament to the filmmakers’ ability to draw the audience into the drama.
Unfortunately, the film hits some turbulence in the writing, particularly when it comes to the “faith-based” elements. On several occasions, it falls into the trap of including dialogue meant more for the audience’s benefit than for the other characters. A scene in which Quaid begins to question his faith becomes an almost painfully forced “Bible study” moment. The movie does not always seem to trust the power of its own story. For example, near the end of the flight, a character is talking Doug White through the landing process over the phone when he declares, “I know you don’t know me. You can’t see me. But I’m here to help you. Believe in me . . . Sometimes you’ve got to trust in things you can’t see.” It’s a heavy-handed metaphor, especially coming from someone who, based on the character, would likely never say such a thing. The film’s attempts to turn the miraculous true story into a Bible study is never as powerful or inspirational as when it merely allows the story to speak for itself.
Another bumpy area is the film’s identity. It attempts to ride the line between being a gritty story and a traditional faith-based narrative. Thus, characters speak some minor profanities and openly discuss sex. But because most of the film is sanitized and traditional, these grittier elements seem halfhearted and conspicuous. Rather than feeling authentic to the storytelling, they come across more like an attempt to convince audiences that this “isn’t just your grandpa’s faith-based film.” Personally, I’m not wholly opposed to including those elements in a faith-based film (Father Stu managed it well), I just don’t think they fit well in this film.
Overall, despite a few rocky moments, On a Wing and a Prayer won me over. It has a lot of positive elements going for it, and I think a lot of people will enjoy it. Some stiff writing and preachy dialogue keeps it from soaring as high as it could have, but it is a captivating drama with well-orchestrated tension and a powerful message of faith.
On the Surface
Language: A handful of minor profanities, including three uses of “d—.” A character in peril utters “Oh my God” multiple times.
Sexuality: A married couple flirts and discusses their intentions to have sex that night. A woman at a bar tells a man, “I like to get inside a man’s head before he tries to get me inside his bed.” At work the next day, the man talks with a coworker about his success in bedding a woman, admitting he doesn’t know her name, “All I know is she loved bourbon. Lots of it.”
Other: Alcohol is featured prominently throughout, with various characters drinking or talking about drinking.
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Faith in the Unseen
Airplanes have long been a go-to metaphor for preachers to illustrate faith and belief. Whether it’s the laws of aerodynamics that we non-aviators don’t fully understand or the stranger in the cockpit, the act of soaring 30,000 feet in the air is certainly an act of faith. On a Wing and a Prayer builds on this classic metaphor.
A young flight enthusiast humorously declares to her mother, “Since I’ve turned 13, I don’t believe in things I don’t see. That includes the Easter bunny, the bogyman, and Dad” (her dad is often away for work, although he—like God—makes his presence known by the end). The theme is most obviously established in the earlier mentioned quote: “Believe in me . . . Sometimes you’ve got to trust in things you can’t see.”
The film explores the “unseen” nature of God not just in the sense of being invisible but also incomprehensible. As Doug grieves the loss of a loved one, it is not just that he can’t see God that shakes his faith. He questions why God would allow such tragedy and pain to happen: “Why would he let this happen? I’ve always been a believer but . . . this is a kind of test, or maybe all the stuff they told me in church just doesn’t mean what I thought it did.” As Doug wrestles with the classic philosophical problem of suffering, the film shows how even believers can struggle to recognize God at work around them.
God Works in Mysterious Ways
Another theme that emerges throughout the story is how God works in seemingly mysterious ways. The movie cuts between various character groups and parallel stories that do not appear to intersect directly. At first, the decision seems to be merely the result of needing to pad the runtime and cast a wider net. But as the story unfolds, the various characters contribute to the rescue in important ways. God’s activity is evident in the scenes within the plane, but perhaps even more interestingly in the actions of those on the ground, including several who do not express any belief in God.
I admit that when some of the “non-Christian” characters were introduced, I groaned. At first, they seemed to check all the classic tropes of how faith-based films often depict atheists (some combination of alcoholism, tempers, or chauvinistic attitudes). Yet as the rescue mission unfolds, they become heroes and play surprisingly important roles in God’s plan to protect and rescue the White family. The film is a reminder that God can work through whomever he chooses.