Essential: INTO THIN AIR (1985)

Last week I reviewed the documentary “Just Another Missing Kid.” It was about college-aged Eric Wilson who disappeared without a trace. He had been traveling from his home in Ottawa to school in Colorado one summer when he was kidnapped and killed. The van he was driving turned up on the east coast, where the Wilsons hired a detective to find out what happened. The police did not seem too interested in the case, since according to them there are many young adults who go missing each year (as if it’s no big deal).

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The documentary was produced in 1982 by Canadian television and screened as a documentary feature in the United States, where it won an Academy Award. Three years later ITC secured the rights to dramatize the story as a made-for-television movie. The result was Into Thin Air which aired on CBS in late 1985 and starred Ellen Burstyn. Though the Wilsons had told their own story in the first film and even re-enacted key sequences, network executives wanted to tell it again with professional actors.

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In a production like this comparisons to the actual story are inevitable. The producers of a TV drama are going to take liberties, though it often isn’t necessary. One major difference is the Wilson name has been changed to Walker. I suppose that was done to protect the family. However, the detective does not have an alias; so actor Robert Prosky is portraying Jim Conway as Jim Conway.

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When you watch the documentary first, followed by the TV movie, you can see how much hokum Hollywood screenwriters and directors like to put on screen. They go out of their way to make Eric as fun-loving as possible in the first ten minutes, playing loud music and goofing around with his brothers; so we can see what a “real” teenager he is (by 1985 standards). Also, the mother keeps telling him to call home when he’s on the road. All this is done to signal the viewer he won’t call home anymore after a certain point, and this loving perfect family will be shattered into a million pieces.

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There is a segment after he’s gone missing, where the oldest brother and father search for him in Nebraska. In the documentary, the brother tells us they were haunted every time they saw a van pass by thinking it must be Eric. If Alfred Hitchcock had filmed this TV movie, he would have shown their psychological torture in close-ups every time a van drove by. But in the TV movie, the director wants to give us something more– some big heart-pounding action– so when they see a van drive by, they chase after it down the highway like a bat out of hell. They end up pushing the van off on to the shoulder of the road, the tires practically leaving skid marks on the pavement, just to see if Eric’s inside. I can only imagine what the Wilsons thought when they watched it.

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To its credit the TV movie does keep us fairly entertained, if that’s the right word. Ellen Burstyn and Robert Prosky do an admirable job conveying the predicament the characters are faced with, which helps the whole thing. Burstyn catches herself using Method Actor tricks and refocuses on the gravity of the situation. There are a few lines where she is supposed to rail at the ineptitude of the American justice system, and while the dialogue was cringe in those instances, she overcomes it with a realistic performance.

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When you watch something like this, you realize just how important it is for a grieving family to get assurances from a detective. Often the detective is the only one who gives them anything solid to go on. It’s a meaningful relationship that occurs in spite of tragic circumstances. Circumstances where their idyllic suburban life went poof.

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INTO THIN AIR may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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