Last Flight Home
(USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Ondi Timoner
Programme: Special Screenings (World Premiere)
“There’s no rehearsal for this,” says Cooper, Eli Timoner’s nurse in Last Flight Home. As Cooper tends to the 92-year-old Timoner during his final days, the film observes Eli’s family as they gather to say good-bye. Partially paralysed after an accidental stroke 40 years ago, he recognizes that his wife, Lisa, can no longer care for him as his health and mobility deteriorates. As a Californian, Timoner is fortunate to live in a state that gives Americans the right to choose their time of death. There’s no rehearsal for such an act, especially when the smallest gesture of assistance can land a loved one in jail.
Last Flight Home is a disarmingly intimate glimpse at the end of life process. As Eli’s daughter, Ondi, a two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner (for Dig! and We Live in Public), documents his final days, the film offers a road map for anyone in search of guidance for how to say good-bye. It draws upon her family’s journey and distills into one deeply moving film how painful yet dignified death can be.
The film follows the timeline of Eli’s request as the family learns the end of life process as it unfolds. They need two doctors to sign off and recognize within Eli the mental capacity to articulate his desire to die. There are waiting periods and check-ins with hospice workers who manage Eli’s deteriorating state. All the while, Ondi and her mother learn and discuss the process of administering the final drugs. This shared process lets them take stock of Eli’s legacy and the strong family he leaves behind.
Last Flight Home weaves Timoner’s biography within the lead-up to his death. Ondi recounts her father’s success as an air executive. She tells how he established Air Florida and grew the “little airline that could” from an intra-state success to the fastest-growing airline worldwide after lobbying successfully for deregulation. Timoner recalls how her father was one of those executives who pitched in on any seemingly minor task. He knew the names of his colleagues across the corporate ladder until it simply grew too many rungs.
However, she notes the tragic turn in Eli’s fortune when, in 1982, a masseuse accidently cracked his neck, which caused a stroke and partially paralysed him. Although Lisa, Ondi, and siblings Rachel and David rallied for Eli as “the T-team,” his life changed. His board of directors forced his departure, citing a man in a wheelchair as detrimental to a public image. The doc tells how the Timoners eventually became bankrupt and how Eli’s doggedness tried to shield them from their downfall.
Timoner’s backstory matters here because people carry such weights with them to their dying breath. Eli summons Rachel, a rabbi, to offer him spiritual guidance. Some of the most powerful scenes in Last Flight Home see Eli unburden himself to Rachel. He seeks forgiveness for all the times he couldn’t provide for his family financially. He regrets the times he begged friends for help. However, this process sets Eli at peace as he learns the true measure of a man in his final days. All his family members—children and grandchildren—are at his side, and nobody is talking about money.
Last Flight Home carries a DIY style that reflects the circumstances of the family gathering and, frankly, the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic actually works in the film’s favour when one considers that Eli’s alternative was to spend his final time in hospital, alone, while his family members had limited, if any, visiting access. Ondi, moreover, initially records the family without an eye for making a documentary. She’s just capturing moments to hold onto her dad for as long as she can. Zooms, meanwhile, offer family meetings and, later, windows through which loved ones say goodbye. Last Flight Home is filmmaking as catharsis, and one sees how the film’s nakedness will help other families confront grief.
Ondi’s recordings capture intimate moments for the family to cherish. Particularly touching is the portrait of Lisa as she comes to terms with losing her husband. Lisa lies on the touch, answering Ondi’s questions intermittently. She’s clearly in disbelief that she’s letting go.
However, as the film observes the end of life process through its bureaucratic checks and balances, as well as the emotional investment of the family, Timoner makes a compelling portrait of dying with dignity. Last Flight Home isn’t a polemic. It’s a reminder to spend the time that one has wisely, and to make peace with one’s family and oneself. The filmmaker seems thankful that her father had the luxury of time and planning to do so. Viewers can decide for themselves if everyone deserves the same goodbye.
Last Flight Home premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.