Arkansas Movie Passes Modified Test
Back when I regularly reviewed records, we applied what my wife, Karen, calls the “15-second test” to any over-the-board recording that came our way. Any unknown artist who arrived without a portfolio had about 15 seconds to convince us to keep listening. If nothing jumped out, we would move on to the next unknown artist and give them a chance.
It wasn’t right, but it was necessary. Time and space may be infinite on a cosmic level, but not in a journalist’s life.
I wasn’t about to submit the new HBO Max documentary series “The Invisible Pilot” to the 15-second test. It’s a film largely set and filmed in Arkansas, and members of the Arkansas film community have played a significant role in bringing it to the screen. I should probably reveal that I worked with one of the film’s executive producers, Jon Crawford (or as announced on the IMDb page for the “Jonathan Bryant Crawford” series) on a project that’s not quite done yet. quite successful. I’ve long admired the work of Gabe Mayhan, who is one of the show’s cinematographers. Also credited as executive producer is Craig Hodges, an Arkansan who apparently started putting this story together over a decade ago.
If nothing else, the premiere of “The Invisible Pilot” – the first episode was released on Monday, the next one will be available next Monday – is an event worth watching. Even these days, when there are plenty of channels hungry for content, an Arkansas story told largely by the Arkansans through a platform like HBO Max is something to pay attention to.
On the other hand, we’ve probably reached the point where we no longer need to encourage a successful storyteller to get their story out there. Just because the Arkansans are prominent in a production doesn’t mean the production is good. Homerism and chatter are as bad as rejecting a project out of hand because it was not conceived, incubated and born in one of our coastal cultural capitals.
So maybe you understand why I gave “The Invisible Pilot” a 15-second version of the test.
If he hadn’t been adopted, I probably would have just reported the facts about his arrival. But as it is, I think I have to be very careful in writing a lot about it. Not just because it’s unfair to watch a play again after the first act (I only saw the first episode of “The Invisible Pilot”, HBO Max ignored our requests to see the series in advance, probably because that even though the series is set in Arkansas and largely produced by Arkansas talent, they still view Arkansas as too important to their publicity strategies), but because there are so many twists and turns surprises in this first episode that I do not want to reveal anything.
There’s a major reveal around the 30 minute mark – I don’t think I can talk about anything after that. (If you must know, there are plenty of other spoiler-clogged reviews.)
So I’ll just say it’s a smartly edited, fast-paced document that feels like an Adam McKay production. (McKay, the former “Saturday Night Live” head writer who went from making sibling comedies with then-friend Will Ferrell to directing a string of fact-adjacent feature films known for their winking attitude and breaking the fourth wall, at one point took this project under his wing and is credited as another executive producer.
I go back and forth on McKay’s work – I admire some of the chances he takes and generally like the brilliance with which he attacks his subjects, but there are a lot of misses in there. I wasn’t crazy about “Vice,” and I thought last year’s “Don’t Look Up” was too broad and on the nose for effective satire. I admit to thoroughly enjoying his current HBO Max series “Winning Time” while complaining loudly about at least two or three choices made in each episode. (#notmyjerrywest)
Phil Lott and Ari Mark (a team known for the true crime series “Murder in the Heartland” and the debunking science series “Could You Survive the Movies?”) direct, though Hodges obviously led (and possibly shot) good. number of early interviews.
While I have a feeling the series could go in a number of directions, I’ll just provide the setup. In 1977, a Hazen duster named Gary Betzner apparently committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the White River in the middle of a stormy night. His wife was so lost that she spent time in a mental hospital. Betzner also left three young children, Travis and Sara Lee and Polly, from his previous marriage.
Betzner cut a dashing figure around Hazen, apparently he was one of the best pilots to take Navy Top Gun training. He liked to fly under bridges and clean the wheels of his cropduster by flying low over the river and plunging them into it. He also had legal issues – he was considering a 10-year sentence for cocaine possession in Miami and a similar charge in Arkansas.
Hodges was a childhood friend of Betzner’s son, Travis, and he seems to have devoted most of his life to uncovering this fascinating and, at times, unsettling story that is, to say the least, gripping on television.