The Man Who Wanted to Fly is actually the story of two men. One of them has his head in the clouds and the other has his feet planted firmly on the ground.
These men are the 80-something bachelor brothers Bobby and Ernie Coote, who live together on their family farm and spend their days occupied with work and hobbies.
The documentary opens in darkness, the only light coming from a small window. There is dialogue that at first suggests air-traffic chatter. What we’re actually hearing is Ernie on his CB radio, swapping call signs and jokes with operators from around the world.
This is a bit of sly misdirection. In these moments Ernie appears for all the world like an adventurous sort as he puts his voice out into the world and listens carefully for distorted answers from parts unknown.
But apart from his travels on the airwaves, Ernie is a homebody. He shows off a collection of postcards sent to him by CB radio operators from all over the world. To Ernie, looking at the exotic locales is just as good as traveling to them. No, it’s better – he’d only get bored, he says with a laugh.
Ernie’s brother is the adventurer. Bobby spends his free time fixing clocks, tinkering with machines and hand-fashioning violins. Subscribers to the Anglo-Celt newspaper may already be familiar with Mr Coote’s local celebrity, but for many this film will serve as an introduction to the wild world of Bobby Coote.
In a shed we see Bobby put the finishing touches on a clock. He squints into the mechanism through an oversized monocular. He is tall and thin and when he’s working he has the look of a mad scientist from a children’s book.
Bobby has his own way of going about things. He “upcycles” old furniture and discarded wood for his violins and clocks. He rides a motorcycle while Ernie opts for a car.
In his youth, Bobby worked in England. Those were crazy days for him, and today he still lives a fast life – days of hard work and nights at the pub. Ernie likes to stay in and watch Westerns.
Bobby’s unusual approach to things works out well for director Frank Shouldice’s film.
Where a traditional narrative would see Bobby work his way through flight school before anything else, The Man Who Wanted to Fly sees Bobby and his partner in crime, a local farmer named Sean Mcbride, repurpose an old shed into an aircraft hanger, they also make a landing strip using farming machinery – and this is all before Bobby knows how to fly a plane.
Bobby’s haphazard plan appears to come straight out of Field of Dreams: build and hope.
This early disruption of what we expect from a “people learning to do things” film works out for the best. There’s a lot of downtime in Bobby’s story. The microlight plane he purchases is in serious need of repairs. Then Christmas rolls around, and after that there’s some bad weather in the new year.
All of this means that Bobby’s dream remains grounded for a considerable portion of the film’s 82-minute runtime.
Shouldice’s solution is to get to know Ernie and Bobby. He presses them on their personal histories and gives us a view into their sometimes uneasy relationship.
As Bobby’s is sidelined, Ernie comes into focus. He is more cynical than his brother, he remains a committed bachelor, and seemingly has done for some time.
When Shouldice questions Ernie about love he’s dismissive, telling the director that he was “half in love once”. If there’s drama there, Ernie isn’t sharing.
I got the feeling that there was an attempt by the filmmakers to make Ernie’s situation out to be more desperate than it actually was.
In one sequence, Bobby tells the camera crew he’s going to Christmas dinner at a friend’s house. We then cut to Ernie preparing a Christmas meal for himself. He sits down and cuts into a sizeable turkey leg, contented.
The movement of this sequence suggests that we are supposed to feel sorry for Ernie, who’s left out of Bobby’s Christmas celebration. But there’s a heartwarming sense of satisfaction from Ernie in the shot with the turkey that undoes any low feelings.
Both of the Coote brothers are doers in their own ways. Ernie may be more strait-laced than Bobby, but he’s no less brave. He’s a solid sort of character, steadfast in his convictions and happy in the life he’s chosen.
Bobby too is unstoppable when he puts his mind to something, but there’s a lot going on in that mind of his. For a time he becomes disheartened about his prospects for flying.
It’s the director, Shouldice, who gets Bobby and his film back on the runway, when he presses Bobby on flying lessons. A cut later and Bobby’s at his first lesson; a few cuts more and he’s landing the plane on that strip in the field.
The aerial photography throughout the film is wonderful. Shouldice and director of photography Dave Perry balance the splendour of the microlight flying with a little bit of danger. The heights are dizzying and the microlight operators are fairly exposed.
Even if the audience feels a little queasy, however, Bobby seems to remain untroubled. His first flight goes off without a hitch. There’s a suggestion that dreams can come true if you give them enough time and approach them on your own terms.
More than the flying, which makes for some decent spectacle and a feel-good ending, my lasting impression of The Man Who Wanted to Fly was of the brothers.
These are two men living lives some might consider lonesome, but which, when approached with the spirit and can-do attitude of the Coote brothers, prove appealing alternatives to the humdrum of the everyday – enviable even.
The Man Who Wanted to Fly is scheduled for release in cinemas nationwide 29 March.