Directed by Tony Bill
Starring James Franco, Martin Henderson, Scott Hazel, and Mac McDonald,
Rated PG-13

Those rickety biplanes, all canvas and wood and held together by spit and a prayer, come taxiing out of the early morning fog, and there’s the sad tin whistle music and the eager young men jumping to get up in the air and get themselves killed, and I’m a basket case from the get-go, all tears and sobby and having just the best time I can have at the movies: I. Am. Moved. Just the idea of The Great War, the built-in tragedy and pathos of too many young lives chewed up by the sudden and unexpected new horrors of mechanized warfare — you’ve got me at hello when you set a movie here, which hasn’t been done in years by Hollywood.

I know I’m being manipulated just a bit by the planes coming out of the fog and the swelling music and James Franco looking heroic and handsome in his leather flight jacket — after all, Flyboys is from producer Dean Devlin, who was behind movies like Independence Day and The Patriot, films not exactly known for their subtlety. But there’s only a little bit of that ol’ Hollywood manipulation, just enough so that the movie wraps itself around your heart and brews a stew that’s stirring and affecting. Flyboys does not squander what instant drama it is handed in its premise: the short careers of the world’s first fighter pilots in the skies over France. By keeping just this side of the line, assuming that you’re smart enough that you don’t need to be bashed over the head, that a tap on the shoulder will be enough, Flyboys invokes that old-fashioned Hollywood magic, the kind that sweeps you up and away. And I use the phrase “old-fashioned Hollywood” in the very best way, like you feel like you’ve been flipping around the TV in the middle of the night and came across some great old movie you’d never even heard of before, and how could you not since it’s so, you know, classic?

And maybe that’s not surprising, since among the handful of screenwriters is David S. Ward, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sting. This ain’t Michael Bay at work here, and the cast of mostly unknowns isn’t here because they look good on the screen — which isn’t to say that they don’t — but because they can bring a sense of character and importance that far too many of the young actors onscreen today can’t. There’s Franco’s Texas cowboy, volunteering to fly for the French before the U.S. joined the war — he’s running from an arrest warrant back in Texas on a bullshit charge; my esteem for Franco goes up with every film he makes: he’s got that indefinable It that makes a movie star. Ditto costar Martin Henderson, who was in the The Ring and Bride & Prejudice and a couple of other silly things but deserves to be better known: He’s the one flying ace left when Franco and his American compatriots (played by an unknown team of appealing young actors) arrive in France, and Henderson makes him a bitter and intriguing presence.

It’s not that there’s anything drastically revelatory here: you know what to expect, and you get it, done as well as Hollywood ever gets it. These fresh-faced boys arrive all enthusiastic into the middle of what would be the most deadly conflict in history, without the benefit of our hindsight, and they learn to fly and learn to live with their own shocked selves as the realities of this new way of waging war hit them in the face. Franco falls in love with a pretty French girl, of course, and there’s lots of exciting air battles that make you understand why George Lucas used footage of WWI dogfights as the template for those in Star Wars, and pilots die in heroic ways, and sometimes in stupid ways.

But it’s all pulled together in that magical movie way that gets you caught up and makes you care and leaves you feeling, weirdly enough, somehow like a better person for having shared in this based-on-reality true story. Flyboys is the kind of film that, when Hollywood gets it right, it does best — this is a grand yarn of adventure and catastrophe, of optimistic dreams settling into shattered certainty. It’s big and emotional and sentimental without being sappy, luscious with beautiful locations shot to make you fall in love with them, and with the sweetness of romance in which a passionate kiss constitutes the big sex scene. It’s an instant new classic in my own little pantheon of favorite films.