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Jack Harris is a successful air traffic controller, when something inexplicably goes wrong and a plane crashes, killing all passengers. Although Harris had apparently done everything possible in the circumstances, he changes career and starts designing air control software. Then a former colleague approaches him in desperation - it is coming up to New Year's Eve, there's a shortage of staff and the weather isn't looking good. Harris initially struggles, having flashbacks to the plane crash, and his new colleagues, knowing his history, are suspicious. Then there is a power cut, as a result of sabotage, and there is a strong possiblity that another plane is going to crash. Can Harris pull himself together in time to do anything useful? And will his colleagues rally around him.
Released back in 1998, when Kiefer Sutherland wasn't exactly at the top of his game, this film is largely unknown and is now relegated to the bargain bucket. Nevertheless, it isn't a terrible film and there are certainly lots of familiar faces. Sutherland is good in his role as Jack Harris. Harris is suffering from a massive crisis of confidence following the plane crash and seems to have thrown himself into his new job, which takes up most of his free time as well. His panic attacks on his return to work are realistic and help to make the audience more sympathetic to the character, as does the brief flirtation he enjoys with a young female colleague (although Jack doesn't appear to notice at first). This isn't Sutherland's best performance, but it's certainly more than adequate.
The others are most definitely secondary characters. Bruce McGill plays T C Bryant, Jack's former colleague, but apart from being an instrument to bring Harris back to the career he loves, he had no real role to speak of. It was good to see Robert Sean Leonard (House) as one of the team that is against Harris and it looks for a while as if the role will develop further - certainly his character has the most about him outside of Jack - but it doesn't in the end. Kristy Swanson is fine as Jack's love interest, but apart from looking flustered and/or attracted to Jack, she doesn't have much to do. Finally, it was good to see Henry Winkler and Kelly McGillis in their roles, but their familiar faces had more of an impact than their characters did.
Disaster movies are usually fast moving and full of action. This one is quite different. Based almost exclusively within an airport control room and the tension is created from the characters and really not knowing what is going to happen next. This could have worked really well, but unfortunately is probably the main reason why the film has largely disappeared from most people's radars. The pacing doesn't quite work. The first part of the film involves the plane crash that scuppered Jack's career, then the middle part starts, when he is called back as a controller. This teeters along for a while, and there are a few red herrings thrown in which are then discarded. Then it almost feels like the film is over when the final part starts. I just felt that the film peaked and troughed too much and ended up being much less effective than it could have been.
Then there are a number of threads that seem to be thrown in for no apparent reason. A number of reviewers on imdb.com claim that the technical aspects of the control room are incorrect. I can only take their word for it - that certainly didn't have much of an impression on me because I know nothing about airport control rooms. However, there did seem to be an awful lot going wrong all at the same time and just as one thing was fixed, something else gave up the ghost. One of the technicians claimed that they couldn't have the computers on at the same time as the air conditioning, for example. On top of that, there was a random saboteur and a private pilot who apparently has little idea how to fly his own plane.
On a more positive note, the film did grow on me as it progressed, mainly because of Kiefer Sutherland's performance. This was strong enough to keep me watching - and I'd go as far as to say that without it, this film would definitely have bombed. I particularly enjoyed his relationship with the pilot of the plane about to crash - this is very sensitively done. I was also fascinated by the portrayal of the air traffic controllers. Air disasters in the news tend to focus on the passengers and crew, but this film really brings home the tremendous responsibility that those on the ground have. The fact that Jack gives up his career after such a disaster is completely understandable.
The only extra with the DVD is the trailer - perhaps not surprising considering the lack of hype around the film.
I thought this film was reasonable; Sutherland did a great job, but with a badly organised story, it was hard for him to bring off a miracle. Fans of disaster films are also likely to be disappointed because the action is so low key. However, if you are a fan of Kiefer Sutherland, or come across the DVD for a low price, then it is worth giving it a go. I have certainly seen much worse films. Three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from play.com for £2.99. I bought mine from Tesco for just £1.
Classification: 15 (not entirely sure why - there is nothing violent or sexual discussed or portrayed)
Running time: 93 minutes
When air traffic controller Jack Harris (Kiefer Sutherland) loses a plane in an unavoidable accident his confidence takes a knock and quits the profession which he loved. But several years later and with the Phoenix airport fighting tight budget controls as well as the worst storm in years, he answers an emergency call and returns to the control tower to help out. But can he beat the demons that have haunted him since that fateful night and help bring down the planes when the odds are stacked against him.
When I spotted "Ground Control" and saw the cast list which included Kiefer Sutherland, Kelly McGillis, Bruce McGill and Henry Winkler I was thinking that maybe this was a film which slipped under the radar of being commercially successful due to lack of promotion. But then when I saw that the asking price was just £1, I wondered what could be so bad about this film that it only warrants just 100 pennies. Well curiosity got the better of me and having spent £1 I can honestly say that it is pretty mediocre but at a pound is not a complete waste of money. The biggest problem with the film is that it turns out that it was made for TV and so really suffers from not having a big budget, but despite that it has some charm and compared to other made for TV movies is quite good.
The actual plot of the film revolves around the drama of a flight control tower and in particular one New Years eve where the already pushed staff are struggling so much that an ex-employee returns to try and help out. To be honest the plot is not that spectacular and whilst their is obvious some drama on two levels, that being whether Jack Harris can over come the flash backs of the fateful night when he lost a plane and that of whether all the planes which are stacked up in the sky will manage to land safely, it really lacks any power or suspense. Even the element which features the airport struggling from budget cuts doesn't add anything significant to the mix, and the whole thing lacks any real tensions. Will they manage to land the planes, will Jack Harris save the day, well to be honest you can guess what will happen as soon as he returns to the flight control tower, but the journey from start to end is quite enjoyable despite being limp and predictable.
It also doesn't help that the film was obviously made on a tight budget and would imagine the majority of that went on star fees as the special effects, locations and scenery are not only very limited but unbelievably fake. The film literally only has a handful of locations and mainly stays in the flight control tower which looks distinctly unequipped to be controlling the skies above Phoenix. Everything looks really fake and at times I was waiting for a wall to wobble when a door got slammed. Even the scenes of the pilots in the skies is obviously low budget as all you get to see is the nose of the plane with the pilots in the cockpits, which is so obviously a mock up in a studio it was laughable. Now although this does spoil the film it is actually quite amusing and once you get past the initial disappointment of not having big budget effects it adds to the films quirky charm. Making the film so insular in its locations does cause the film to seemingly jump, and whilst bigger films will show a character moving from location to location, in "Ground Control" everything is done by snappy cuts, which makes the film seem a bit disjointed at times
As already mentioned, it is obvious that a lot of money has been spent on the cast and most significantly on landing Kiefer Sutherland to play the lead of Jack Harris. Whilst this is by no means Kiefer's best performance he does an admirable job of breathing life into a character which is pretty flat. Add to this some terrible, cliché dialogue and you start to question why he actually took the role. The character of Harris is pretty boring to be honest and whilst you get a real sense that the initial plane accident knocked him for six, his return to the job fails to really demonstrate the emotional turmoil that he is going through as he suffers flash backs to that fateful night. What I did find surprising was that with a cast list which has some quite impressive names, they were all cast in rather minor roles and the film spends all its time focusing on Kiefer Sutherland. Out of all the supporting cast the only actor who manages to make any impact is Henry Winkler as the airports engineer who has to fix the dieing systems on a shoe string budget. Not that his performance is brilliant but he manages to add some humour to the situation which surprisingly doesn't feel out of place in what is essentially a serious drama. The film would have been improved 10 fold if only they had made the supporting characters and actors more focal as relying on Sutherland to carry this film was always going to be a mission impossible due to the weak plot and dialogue.
>>>> Film Summary
So the 100 penny question is did I enjoy it. Well despite all of its obvious problems such as plot, effects and characters I did like it and it has a certain amount of low budget charm to it that makes you sit there waiting for the ending despite being able to guess the outcome. A lot of the films emphasis is on the acting skills of Kiefer Sutherland, whilst this is not his best performance he does a reasonable job of making the film more than it deserves to be. In my opinion the film would have definitely been improved if they had taken the entire burden off of his shoulders and spread the scenes more amongst the supporting cast as with some big names they would have added further dimensions. Even the cheesiness of the plot and fake special effects doesn't totally spoil this film and at times it makes even the more enjoyable. At just £1 you really can't go wrong and whilst you may only watch "Ground Control" once in my opinion it is worth those 100 pennies.
>>>> Price & Availability
>>>> Technical Details
Duration: 93 mins
Year of Release: 1998
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director(s): Richard Howard
Writer(s): Talaat Captan, Robert Moreland
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Bruce McGill, Robert Sean Leonard, Kelly McGillis, Margaret Cho, Ruben Paul, Henry Winkler, Farrah Forke, Michael Gross, Jack Plotnick, Mike Kimmel, Brian George
© Christianfilm September 2007