Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘The Pilot’ an Insightful Film About an Alcoholic Pilot

Directed and Starring Cliff Robertson
By Ian Kane
Ian Kane
Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com
August 13, 2021 Updated: August 13, 2021

PG | 1h 32min | Drama | 1980

As horrible as alcoholism’s effects can be, it does make for interesting cinematic drama, as it offers a psychological character study. While many films have covered alcoholism, such as “Leaving Las Vegas (1995)” and the phenomenal tour de force, “The Lost Weekend” (1945), films that deal with alcoholic characters who are in charge of the health and safety of people on a grand scale, are rarer. “The Pilot” (1980) is one such film and the incomparable Cliff Robertson not only stars as the movie’s main protagonist—commercial airlines pilot Mike Hagen—he also directed it.

The opening scene makes a strong impact and shows what I’m sure many alcoholics have gone through in their lives: Mike groggily awakens to the white noise and horizontal lines of his TV. Suddenly, a news broadcast begins and the chipper voice of a reporter announcing the show contrasts (in a somewhat humorous way) with Mike’s deflated demeanor. Mike slowly arises from the couch he crashed on and shambles into the kitchen, retrieves some milk out of his fridge, and proceeds to gulp it down. After waking his crabby wife, Jean (Leigh Cort), he visits one of his stash spots in their house, produces a bottle of brown liquor, and drinks from it liberally. In a touching bookend to the scene, their daughter Cricket (Jennifer Houlton) greets him as he gets into his car and drives off for work.

Soon, Mike is in the air, piloting a commercial passenger flight with his co-pilot and friend Jim Cochran (Frank Converse). We learn that Mike has an uncanny knack for flying: He senses that they may be headed into turbulence and gets permission to divert around it, despite there being no solid evidence of adverse weather.  When he attempts to warn another pilot who is flying miles behind him, the man shrugs it off and later regrets doing so. The pilot’s plane gets tossed around and, in a dramatic scene, falls rapidly from the sky to crash-land. Not only do Mike’s superiors think he’s a fantastic pilot (he’s being considered for a pilot of the year award), Jim also regards him as “the perfect pilot.”

However, we also discover that things aren’t all good in the air. Part of Mike’s mid-flight ritual is to temporarily excuse himself from his piloting duties, meander back into the bathroom (he carefully locks the door behind him of course), retrieve a bottle of liquor he has secreted in advance, and do a little imbibing. Each of these clandestine drinking sessions ends with a few squirts of breath freshener to cover up any liquor-tinged odors.

Due to Mike’s crumbling marriage with his cantankerous wife, he sees his girlfriend, Pat (Diane Baker), on the side. Pat provides Mike with companionship and is ever-supportive of him, even when Jim secretly reveals Mike’s drinking problem to her. Jim is stuck in a miserable place. Although he doesn’t want to go to their superiors with this information because it could ruin Mike’s career, he tells Pat that the day will probably come when Mike will be drunk in a plane’s hour of need.

Things begin to come apart at the seams when a stewardess notices Mike’s bathroom visits—with paper cups in hand. Mike, who learned to fly at a young age by piloting crop dusters, has almost two decades of flight time under his belt. His expert piloting skills and cool, calm, and collected nature is a double-edged sword. On one hand, his expertise has saved him from serious danger, but on the other, it has enabled him to put up a big wall of denial.

As Mike’s alcoholism progresses, Mike’s world literally begins to spin out of control and, at a certain point, even Jim refuses to co-pilot with him.

Will Mike get the help he so desperately needs to get his life back on track?

This film is as much a riveting drama as it is a fascinating study of the psychology of an alcoholic. I’ve known alcoholics in my time who have carried out many of the actions that Mike does in the film—such as hiding bottles from friends, loved ones, and co-workers; becoming defensive when confronted about their drinking issues, and eventually having to seek medical help to deal with them.

Cliff Robertson is excellent as the addicted pilot, an almost mythical figure in the aviation world who becomes increasingly desperate to cover up his alcoholism. It doesn’t hurt that the famous actor was a pilot in real life. Diane Baker and Frank Converse are likewise convincing as caring friends who are trying to help Mike through a difficult time. “The Pilot” is not only a great character study on a topic I’m sure a lot of people can relate to, but also a film that ends on a hopeful note. And that’s something I think we all need during these strange times.

‘The Pilot’
Director: Cliff Robertson
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker, Frank Converse
MPAA Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Release Date: 1980
Rated: 4 stars out of 

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane

Ian Kane
Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com