CBS series shows what it takes to be a `Fighter Pilot'

Preview: Reality program may come wrapped in the flag, but it also may soothe a nation's nerves.

March 28, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

AFP: American Fighter Pilot is a classic example of what U.S. media does better than almost anything: Create myths that make us feel better about ourselves as a nation.

CBS is billing the show that premieres tomorrow night as a "new reality series" from directors Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down). In terms of structure, it is a reality series in the way that it follows three young Air Force officers through 110 days of Top Gun training to become F-15 fighter pilots, the elite of elite.

But, in terms of sociology, American Fighter Pilot has the potential to be so much more, and it starts reaching for the national psyche in the opening credits as it flashes videotape from Sept. 11 of a jet crashing into the World Trade Center tower in a huge ball of flame. Other images in the quick-cut, opening montage include Osama bin Laden in a cave, President Bush addressing the nation on the night of the attacks, and Americans running from the burning towers accompanied by screams of anguish on the soundtrack. Pretty strange stuff for a genre that is regularly called escapist and silly, no?

There's nothing silly about American Fighter Pilot. The three-minute opening sequence is one of the most dazzling and symbolically charged openings ever seen in a network television series. After the images of Sept. 11, we hear one of the three pilots say, "We're not gonna let that happen again." The images stop, and the script, "We're not gonna let that happen again," flashes on the screen, so that the message is crystal clear.

Then we see President Bush saying, "We're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, and no one, no one, will keep that light from shining."

AFP has the potential to be to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 what Rambo and the Chuck Norris movies were to the Vietnam experience. This is Hollywood taking a national trauma and creating a narrative that reassures us it can never happen again, because now we have American heroes who will not let it. The message: Because of these men and the training that you will witness, we are not vulnerable.

In truth, maybe we aren't the military power we once were, but no one can create narratives about what a great military power we are like Hollywood. At its most sociologically profound, American Fighter Pilot is feel-good, Hollywood myth-making soothing the national psyche.

All of that is on the screen in the first three minutes before the reality series proper -- the day-to-day chronicle of the journey these three pilots will take -- even begins. And that is not a bad series in its own right.

I know I've railed against reality series as a genre, but this one is addictive. You get the three pilots identified by type in the opening montage.

"Name: Mike Love, father of two. Name: Todd Giggy, son of a fighter pilot. Name: Marcus Gregory, expectant first-time father. Tyndall Air Force Base. Panama City, Florida. Three men enlisted for 110 days of training. The dream: to become an American Fighter pilot."

The drama is instant: Who is going to make it and who is going to flunk out? Hard-bitten senior officers with nicknames like "Shark" and "Stump" handicap the candidates and talk to us about them behind their backs.

The most fascinating candidate in Episodes 1 and 2 is Giggy, the youngest and best-looking of the trio. He rides a motorcycle, drives a Porsche and bleaches his hair blond. And, man, has he caught the attention, in all the wrong ways, of some of his superior officers.

Beyond playing with the drama of surviving or flunking out, the series also takes us inside the culture of Top Gun school, following the pilots to the bar where they drink, bond and, they hope, will be initiated into the elite tribe of F-15 warriors. We see them toast their mascot, Mr. Bones, a skeleton in a top hat, and understand how much death is a part of this life.

Yes, American Fighter Pilot is a reality series. And, yes, it does exploit the trauma of Sept. 11 to some extent. But I think it has just a bit more to say to America today than Chains of Love or The Bachelor.

TV tonight

What: AFP: American Fighter Pilot

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Real-life Top Gun training as prime-time entertainment.

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