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I’ve said variations on this before, but I feel about three-hour documentary series a bit like the way Stringer Bell felt about 40-degree days on The Wire. A three-hour documentary series is either a 100-minute feature-length documentary where somebody got lazy and stopped editing, or it’s a four- to six-hour documentary that somebody lost the ability to fully research or explore.
I can’t say that I’ve often watched a three-hour documentary series and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly the right amount of time and focus for this particular story.” And TV is giving me way too many three-hour documentary series lately.
The Invisible Pilot
Airdate: Monday, April 4
Directors: Phil Lott and Ari Mark
HBO’s The Invisible Pilot is absolutely a three-hour documentary series and not the exception that proves the rule. Boasting Adam McKay among its executive producers, the Phil Lott and Ari Mark-directed series probably has enough jaw-dropping twists and turns for a tightly edited 43-minute newsmagazine installment and enough intriguingly peculiar details for a feature film. But instead, it becomes several different annoyingly generic documentaries as it goes along, before making a grand, concluding thematic pronouncement that is in no way proven by the ill-focused story that precedes it. For a while, it’s an entertaining jumble. Then it’s just a mess.
The series tells the story of Gary Betzner, a daredevil crop-duster pilot in Arkansas. Apparently a flying superstar trained in the Navy’s Top Gun program — a fact that’s introduced in a pre-credits tease to the first episode and then bizarrely never mentioned again, even though it feels relevant at several points — Gary weathered as many as 11 plane crashes over the years. But in 1977, with his wife, Sally, in the car, he drove out onto a bridge and jumped. His body was never found, leaving Sally and children Sara Lee and Travis (plus a daughter from an earlier marriage) grieving and asking questions.
The body was never found because Gary faked his death. For its first chapter, The Invisible Pilot layers in one juicy true-crime detail after another. The death-faking comes only a half-hour in, and from there the series touches on such matters as a cult, hypnosis and the introduction of the ’70s drug trade, with heavy-handed surprises galore and the highly suspect contention that cocaine is the best cure for gout.
The thing that’s most interesting about The Invisible Pilot is that it’s a documentary palimpsest. Craig Hodges, one of Travis’ childhood friends, began interviewing members of the Betzner family in 2009, and interviews conducted over the course of a decade trace dramatic shifts in appearance and life situations for Gary, Sally, Sara Lee and Travis.
What happened to Hodges’ film? What were the circumstances under which Hodges’ footage, very clearly intended as a compassionate examination of a family coping with the corrosive effects of secrets, lies and generations of trauma, was co-opted into a far more sensationalistic film about Gary and his journey from abused child to daredevil pilot to smuggler and more?
Hodges had a personal investment in the Betzner family and their story. There is no evidence at all that Lott and Mark do. I’m baffled as to where the transition occurred, and I mourn the loss of that original film because it’s almost astonishing how different Sally, Sara Lee and Travis are in their 2009 interviews from their 2021 chats. Any sense of how their lives were impacted is pushed to the side, as are all conversations about Sara Lee’s history of short-lived relationships and any explanations of how the H.P. Lovecraft-loving Travis seemingly ended up living in a van.
Then, in the last 10 minutes, Sally laments that in stories of this type — and the last two hours of The Invisible Pilot are so close to the plot of Tom Cruise’s fact-based American Made as to cause some head-scratching — “They never talk about those who were left behind and really carry the weight.” It’s a good sentiment, and it’s astonishing that Lott and Mark decided to tack it onto an episode that borders on “Iran-Contra for Dummies,” leaving even Gary as an afterthought.
As best I can figure, Hodges was interested in the Betzners who were left behind, but Lott and Mark were won over by Gary’s indisputable easygoing charm. It isn’t just that Gary’s a criminal, because of course he is, but he’s a criminal to a degree that’s much less lighthearted than the filmmakers seem to think. The film is so wrapped up in embracing Gary’s ultra-libertarian ideals that it never stops to ponder if there’s any difference at all between thinking marijuana should be legal and feeling that restrictions on cocaine are a restriction on freedom. It barely stops to deal at all with the idea of betrayal, and that any of his children, especially the daughter from the earlier marriage, might make Gary the villain of the piece. Just because he was an orgy-loving hippie and outlaw and just because Reagan’s War on Drugs was misguided, hypocritical and wrongly applied at every turn doesn’t mean that Gary Betzner was Robin Hood.
For that first hour, the directors are able to use the interviews shot by Hodges, an executive producer and occasional on-camera figure here, to delve into the idea of American tall tales and legend-building. Over the series’ multiple interviews, the members of the Betzner family tell the same story over and over again, often using identical phrases and rhetorical flourishes. The editing here concentrates on the repetition, the myth-making of it all.
There’s a smarter documentary that would be able to home in on the differences instead of the similarities in the repeated stories, one that would find potency in the passage of time, in the evolutions of perspective. But The Invisible Pilot abandons perspective entirely. It becomes an assemblage of familiar news footage bridged by journalist Leon Neyfakh’s Iran-Contra overview, a rudimentary glimpse at a major story the Betzners were adjacent to, instead of truly being a portrait of a family that was adjacent to a major story.
The Invisible Pilot could have been cut down into something more clear-minded and propulsive or fleshed out into something more relatable and emotionally rich. It’s neither. The bits and pieces of a great story are still visible in a documentary that finally isn’t even all that good.
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