'Always' is one of the Spielberg films that no-one ever talks about along with 'Amistad' and 'The Sugarland Express'. Even '1941' and 'Hook' generate more attention simply because they're viewed as Spielbergs two main failures. But 'Always' is an unfairly overlooked movie that has more than a little entertainment value.'Always' also suffers because it's hard to find it's place in the Spielberg canon. It's a long way behind the rollercoaster entertainment of 'Jaws' or 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', it lacks the importantance and intelligence of 'Schindler's List' or 'Saving Private Ryan', and it's certainly not as personal as 'E.T.' was to Spielberg. Instead it stands as the one case of Spielberg remaking someone elses film. Perhaps the only thing it has in common with his other films is that it's a film about the characters like 'Empire of the Sun' or 'The Color Purple' try to be, when they're not being overcrowded by the events or themes around them.
Originally a 1940's flick called 'A Guy Named Joe' starring Spencer Tracy, 'Always' updates the wartime and airforce setting to the present day (well, the 80's at the time) and a group of flying firefighters.
Richard Dreyfuss is Pete Sanditch, daredevil pilot and best friend to Al (John Goodman) and devoted boyfriend to Dorinda (Holly Hunter), both of whom also work as firefighters. Pete agrees for Dorinda's sake to give up the job and teach rookie pilots at an academy, but on his oh-so-ironic final job it all goes horribly wrong and he's blown out of the sky by a forest fire. Finding himself in the afterlife he's told by guardian angel and mentor, Hap (Audrey Hepburn) that there's a job that he must complete on earth first as a ghost. That is to see rookie pilot Ted (Brad Johnson) through his firefighting test and onto the academy, now run by Al. A simple task that's complicated by Ted's romantic feelings towards Dorinda.
'Always' also stands out as Spielbergs one attempt at an out and out romance. And overall it's an uneven attempt. For every invigorating scene there's long periods where nothing much actually happens. The best scenes are when he just lets the actors run with the script. This is probably Dreyfuss' last decent performance, and his third in a lead role for Spielberg. He takes the performance with ease making Pete cocky but not arrogant and unlikeable, with a sprinkling of wry humour that works best in moments of tension. Check out his expression when he realises his engine's on fire. And considering he has to do a lot of acting by talking to people who can't react to his presence, he does a good job. He's helped by a genuine chemistry with Hunter. Together they make some of the more trite and cliched dialogue sparkle, and portray a realistic relationship. Goodman is his usual excellent self in the perhaps undervalued role as the best friend who feels the loss of Pete almost as much as Dorinda. The only weak link is Brad Johnson. Wooden? You could light fires with him. No wonder no-one knows who he is now.
So if Spielberg seems unsure on how to handle the romance, then it must be his least visually exciting film, right? Wrong. His love of aircraft has never been more keenly shown then it is here with numerous lingering shots of the firefighters swooping over forests and lakes. This culminates in a genuinely scary plunge into the middle of a forest fire.
Add to this some excellent cinematography, an unexpected smattering of humour (the deceased Pete can influence people by whispering which he uses to mock Al incessantly) and you have a movie that has more than it's fair share of its Spielberg-isms for want of a better word. And that's not to take into account the dancing scene. As Dorinda sways around her house to the tune of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' the ghost of Pete follows her every move. It's a beautifully shot scene that really ranks among Spielbergs best. Which it makes it a further shame how many people disregard 'Always' as a rare Spielberg flop.No, there's nothing in 'Always' that defines or influences movies like all the classic Spielbergs do in one way or another. But it's a rare Spielberg film in terms of it's origin, themes and the fact that it's a 'people' movie where it's about the people and not the history surrounding them. Find it and watch it if you can. There's a lot more to it than you think.