We trust pilots with our lives every time we take to the sky. There's just something so cool about a person with the knowledge and talent to handle an aircraft. While many of us don't have the confidence or skills to pursue aviation ourselves, we love to live vicariously through their stories on the big screen. Whether it's the skill and romance of "Top Gun," the thrilling action of "Independence Day," the intense drama of "Sully" or the laugh-out-loud humor of "Airplane!," even those who hate flying can enjoy a trip to the skies from the safety of a movie theater — or their couch. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of "Top Gun" on May 16, 2021, join Wonderwall.com as we look at some of the best films about pilots.
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"Top Gun" might be the most famous film about the rush of flying, and it's easy to understand why: It has the perfect combination of romance, action, drama and sweating, shirtless, volleyball-playing heartthrobs. The Tom Cruise-led blockbuster was the highest grossing film of 1986 and gave us one of the movie star's signature roles. The story follows a fighter pilot attending an elite Naval Fighter Weapons School who's fighting to be the best in his class while also fighting for the heart of his instructor. It gave us one of the most famous romances in film history and won an Academy Award for best song (for "Take My Breath Away"). In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." The movie's lasting popularity is so pervasive that a sequel, "Top Gun: Maverick," is scheduled for release in late 2021.
One of the most action-packed flight films is also one of the most successful sci-fi flicks ever. "Independence Day" follows Will Smith as a Marine pilot who must take down a fleet of airborne extraterrestrial beings who've unleashed havoc on Earth on the Fourth of July. The actioner, which features an all-star ensemble that also includes Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Harry Connick Jr. and Vivica A. Fox, became the highest grossing film of 1996. The epic saga was also the second biggest moneymaker in film history at the time and earned an Academy Award for best visual effects. It solidified Will's career as a movie star, became a significant turning point in the history of the Hollywood blockbuster and changed the game of what a disaster film could look like (it also inspired an array of similar films in the late '90s). Too bad its 2016 sequel, "Independence Day: Resurgence," failed to recapture the same magic of the original.
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The story of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009 sounded like a movie the moment it happened. The Hudson River landing, in which all 155 passengers and crew members survived, and the subsequent publicity and investigation all sounded too good to be true and captured nonstop media coverage, so it was only a matter of time before it received the Hollywood treatment. And boy, did it attract some big names: Clint Eastwood directed and Tom Hanks starred. The film received acclaim upon its 2016 release, earning an Oscar nomination for best sound editing and becoming one of the filmmaker's biggest box office hits, grossing about $240 million worldwide.
"The Aviator" is a biopic that depicts the life of Howard Hughes, a business magnate, aviation pioneer and director of the 1930 war epic "Hell's Angels." The drama takes an intense turn after he completes building the infamous giant aircraft known as the "Spruce Goose," shifting its focus to the mogul's increasingly unstable mental health due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and never becomes any less compelling. The film, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Leonardo DiCaprio, featured a winning ensemble that included Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani, Willem Dafoe and Alan Alda. It received a glowing reception when it hit theaters in 2004, going on to compete for 11 Academy Awards. It won five including a first Oscar for Cate. It also raked in more than $213 million in ticket sales, becoming one of Martin's top five highest grossing films.
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"Flight" took the risky move of making its protagonist pilot an anti-hero, someone who is respected on the job but is actually a liability both at work and in their personal life. The Denzel Washington-led drama follows William "Whip" Whitaker Sr., an alcoholic airline pilot who miraculously crash-lands his plane after a mechanical failure, saving nearly everyone on board. Immediately following the crash, he's hailed as a hero, but an investigation soon leads to questions that put the captain in a different light. The fascinating tale, loosely based on the 2000 plane crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, received support from critics and audiences alike, grossing over $160 million in ticket sales and earning two Oscar nominations, including a best actor nod for Denzel. The 2012 flick also made travelers take a second look at the person driving the plane when getting on board, but it's important to remember it's a work of fiction.
"The Rocketeer" gave aviation a much-needed superhero spin. The 1991 Disney film is set in 1938 and tells the story of Cliff Secord (played by Billy Campbell), a stunt pilot who stumbles upon a hidden rocket-powered jet pack that he uses to fly without the need of an aircraft. His machinery soon attracts the attention of Howard Hughes and the FBI, who are hunting for the missing jet pack, as well as the Nazi operatives who stole it from Howard. The film — which was a breakout project for a young Jennifer Connelly, who co-starred — is based on the comic book character of the same name received a warm reception from critics but a frosty one from audiences. As a result, planned sequels were halted until an animated series based on the actioner landed on Disney Junior in 2019. It's developed a cult following since its initial release, with many praising the action sequences and pulp-y storytelling. The renewed interest has reportedly put a second film in development for streaming platform Disney+.
Not only is it the funniest story about traveling the skies — "Airplane!" is oft-considered one of the greatest comedies in film history. The 1980 classic is a parody of the disaster film genre that was incredibly popular at the time. It became known for its use of surreal humor and its fast-paced slapstick comedy, including visual and verbal puns, gags and obscure humor. For many fans, it's basically a nonstop joke factory masquerading as a film. It finds former pilot Ted Striker overcoming his pathological fear of flying to safely land a commercial flight with the help of an inflatable pilot dummy and his flight attendant ex-girlfriend. It raked in more than $170 million when it hit theaters, earned a best picture nod at the Golden Globe Awards and launched a poorly received 1982 sequel. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
"Hot Shots!" is another aviation comedy from one of the writers and directors of "Airplane!" who this time developed a parody of "Top Gun." It follows Charlie Sheen as he plays a former U.S. Navy pilot who has to overcome the trauma of his father's plane accident in order to come out of retirement and complete a classified mission. It was a massive success, totaling over $180 million in box office gross and winning over critics for its clever takes on films "9½ Weeks," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Dances with Wolves," "Rocky," "Superman" and "Gone with the Wind." It inspired a hit 1993 sequel and marked the first collaboration between Charlie and his eventual "Two and a Half Men" co-star Jon Cryer.
One of the few historical aviation dramas to cover pilots of color is 2012's "Red Tails." It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen during World War II. While the film doesn't feature real characters, it is based on actual individuals. Featuring a star-packed cast that includes Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael B. Jordan, Method Man and Bryan Cranston, it also featured production assistance from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas as it was a passion project for the legendary filmmaker. The movie delivered a mixed bag in reviews and ticket sales, but the significance of the storytelling still earned notoriety. It also won the trophy for outstanding motion picture at the NAACP Image Awards.
One of the earliest benchmarks for aviation films came with 1927's "Wings." The silent movie is a World War I-set romance starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen. It also included a breakthrough part for screen legend Gary Cooper. It follows two men who join the military and take to the skies in one of the war's climactic air battles, while the woman they both love waits frantically for them both to return safely. It received immense acclaim upon release for its technical prowess and realism, setting the then-standard for realistic air-combat sequences. "Wings" nabbed an assortment of nominations at the very first Academy Awards in 1929 and went onto to win the first ever best picture Oscar. In 1997, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and the Academy Film Archive preserved it in 2002.
In "Captain Marvel," the titular hero is better known for her supernatural abilities, including superhuman strength, stamina, durability, agility and, most importantly, flying at great speeds well beyond the sound barrier. However, before becoming an all-powerful superhero, Captain Marvel got her start as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. And while the film is more focused on the intergalactic battle between the Kree Empire and the Skrulls, there's no denying how cool it is to have a female-fronted "Top Gun" with a Marvel twist, especially one chock-full of '90s nostalgia. The 2019 release grossed more than $1.1 billion at the box office, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. Naturally, a sequel is in the works and scheduled for release in 2022.
"Pearl Harbor" was one of the most anticipated films of 2001. The big-budget epic featured a massive cast that included Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin. Coming from blockbuster titans Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, the heavily fictionalized version of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, received a lot of criticism for focusing on a love story set amid the attack and ensuing battle. Reviews aside, no one could resist the romantic war drama that brought in nearly $450 million in ticket sales. Fans of heartthrobs Ben and Josh got their fix, and the incredible action sequences — like the 40-minute battle scene — were so beautifully directed, they have to be seen to be believed. It's no surprise the film received a handful of technical Oscar nominations and won the trophy for best sound editing.
Speaking of all-star casts… 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" had just that with marquee names like Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. It tells the story of pilot Sky Captain, who uses his private air force to fight off gigantic robots attacking New York City while also investigating their origin with his reporter ex-girlfriend. The sci-fi action flick garnered major attention for its revolutionary aesthetics, which took 100 digital artists, modelers, animators and compositors to create its multi-layered 2D and 3D backgrounds. It was one of the first major movies to be shot entirely on a "digital backlot," combining actors with computer-generated surroundings. It earned great reviews but was a major flop at the box office, only grossing $58 million on a $70 million budget. However, in the years since its release, it has become a cult classic.
Charles Lindbergh is one of the best known figures in aeronautical history, and his incredible life was brought to the big screen in 1957's "The Spirit of St. Louis." It featured legendary actor Jimmy Stewart as the aviation pioneer and largely focused on Lindbergh's history-making transatlantic flight in the plane dubbed the "Spirit of St. Louis." Charles's 1927 endeavor was the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean and was destined to make for an exciting film. It was commended for its special effects (it earned an Oscar nod in the best effects category), as well as for Jimmy's lead performances. It wasn't, however, as big of a hit with audiences.
"Catch Me If You Can" is about a con man posing as an aviator instead of an actual pilot, but considering he leads everyone in the film to believe he can fly a plane, there's no reason the audience can't join in on the fun. The 2002 biopic is based on the life of Frank Abagnale, who, before his 19th birthday, successfully conned people out of millions by posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor and a Louisiana prosecutor. Leonardo DiCaprio gives another winning turn as Frank, while Tom Hanks plays the FBI agent hot on his trail. Steven Spielberg directed the immensely entertaining dramedy, which earned more than $350 million at the box office and nabbed two Oscar nominations (best supporting actor for Christopher Walken and best original score for John Williams). The film is also known for its fantastic supporting players including Christopher, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, James Brolin and Jennifer Garner. By the end, you may believe you can charm your way into flying a plane too.
It's shocking the life of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart has only been brought to the big screen once considering that she was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. The moment finally came in 2009 with "Amelia" starring Hilary Swank as the title character, as well as Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. Most of the film is told in flashbacks before ending with the aviator's mysterious disappearance in 1937. Sadly, despite Amelia being a historical icon, the big screen adaptation of her life didn't win over reviewers or audiences, with most critics decrying the film's inconsistencies and lack of focus, and box office returns that didn't even match the production costs. Hilary at least earned praise for her performance. The story remains one of the most important in aviation history.
One of the most recent pilot tales to hit theaters is 2019's "Midway." Directed by "Independence Day" creator Roland Emmerich, it depicts the Battle of Midway, a turning point in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The event saw the U.S. Navy defeat an attacking Imperial Japanese Navy fleet that rendered their aircraft carriers irreparable. Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Darren Criss, Dennis Quaid and Woody Harrelson helped bring the incredible tale to the big screen. It was a passion project for Roland, who failed to get a major studio to distribute it. He still managed to find funding for the movie's $100 million budget, making it the most expensive independent film of all time. It received mixed reviews from critics but was praised for its historical accuracy — and it still grossed $125 million worldwide.
While "Wonder Woman" isn't actually about a pilot, the male lead in the film is one. Chris Pine plays American pilot and spy Steve Trevor, who crash-lands on the titular superhero/Amazon princess's island and has to help her put a stop to both Ares, the Greek god of war, as well as World War I. Any fan of the film will tell you that Chris's scene-stealing performance makes Steve nearly as instrumental to the story's success as the titular heroine. Just as important are his world-saving airborne heroics. The film received glowing reviews and earned more $821 million worldwide. It came as no surprise when Wonder Woman and her aviator love interest returned for a sequel in 2020, with a third film now in development.
Tom Cruise returned to the sky in 2017's "American Made." This time, he traded in the romance and aviation heroics for a far more sordid tale. The action-comedy was inspired by the life of Barry Seal, a former commercial airline pilot for TWA who flew missions for the CIA and became a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s. Then, in order to avoid jail time after being convicted on smuggling charges, he became an informant for the DEA and testified in several major drug trials. It provided a rare opportunity for Tom to play an anti-hero while also giving him a chance to brush up on his piloting skills. The dark move paid off as the film garnered positive reviews and became another line on his long list of $100 million-grossing films.
"Twelve O'Clock High" is another historical war film that helped set the standard of what aviation battle scenes would look like. The 1949 American feature is about air crews in the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force who flew daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany and occupied France during the early days of American involvement in World War II. Led by star Gregory Peck, the movie was nominated for four Oscars (including best picture) and won two. It became required viewing at all the U.S. service academies, college and university Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps detachments, Air Force Officer Training School, the U.S. Navy's former Aviation Officer Candidate School and the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. The actioner even became a television series in 1964 that ran for three seasons. In 1998, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
In 2005's "Stealth," Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx played three top fighter pilots who must join together on a project to develop an automated robotic stealth aircraft. The military film gave the genre a science-fiction twist with the help of "The Fast and the Furious" director Rob Cohen. While it received a chilly response from critics and failed to set the box office alight, the fun flick is the perfect answer for anyone who wants to fill their "Top Gun" fix with a hint of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The project may not be a fan favorite from Jessica or Jamie's filmographies, but it did help continue their reputation as viable A-list stars.
The first aviation comedy of note came in the form of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" in 1965. The period film hilariously depicts the craze of early aviation in 1910, following a fictional English press magnate who offers a significant cash prize to the winner of the Daily Post air race from London to Paris, in an effort to prove that Britain is No. 1 in the air. The slapstick affair received both an Oscar nomination for its screenplay as well as multiple Golden Globe Award noms (including for best picture). It became an immediate box office hit, with audience reaction then and now being relatively universal in assessing it as one of the classic aviation films.