Friday morning at the Sedona International Film Festival was the premiere of the documentary film Speed and Angels. This is a truly stunning movie by director Peyton Wilson which follows the story of two prospective naval aviators as they go through training to become F-14 fighter pilots. What makes this film exceptional is the way Wilson draws us into the lives of Jay and Meagan as they pursue their dream of flying the Tomcat. The film also includes some of the most spectacular aerial photography of fighter pilot training ever seen. This is thanks in large part to the efforts of the films producer F.A. Chierici* (callsign "Paco"). Chierici is a member of the Fighting Saints, the only fighter pilots in the world who teach the art of dogfighting. It was his suggestion to Peyton Wilson which began the project which became Speed and Angels.
For anyone who has ever pursued a dream, this is a very entertaining film. These two young people are followed as they chase a dream that will require exceptional commitment. At one point in the film the Captain of the Saints (known as "Sir Buckethead") calculates the odds of making it to flying Tomcats as somewhere in the area of 1 in 100,000. For Meagan that dream began when she saw the film Top Gun at the age of twelve. Most girls her age would be satisfied with a simple crush on actor Tom Cruise, but not Meagan. She didn't want to date "Maverick" (Cruise's callsign in Top Gun), she wanted to BE Maverick. It is one thing to have a dream, but at the time that Meagan set her heart on becoming a Naval Fighter Pilot, women weren't even allowed to do that! Never one to take be deterred from her dream she managed to get an appointment to the Naval Academy, even after a local guidance counselor told her it would be impossible, where she majored in Aerospace Engineering (as one fellow aviator says, she really is a rocket scientist). As we follow her through dogfight training, day and night carrier landing qualification (a harrowing experience) and her deployment with the Black Knights, I found myself not just watching, but actively rooting for her to succeed.
Jay's story was also very intriguing as we see him take his first flight when he was just two days old! Old home movie footage provided by his mother shows his father taking him for a flight on the way home from the hospital. Talk about being born to fly! Jay's story takes us along a similar journey as Meagan's, but concludes with his deployment in Iraq and a very tense sortie where he is required to give air support to a squad on the ground who is taking fire from enemy forces. Through cockpit camera footage we follow Jay through firing his guns on enemy forces from an altitude of over 3000 feet and then lasering a target for a smart bomb deployment.
One of the highlights of the premiere was the opportunity to meet Meagan, along with Peyton, Paco and the film's editor, Jessica Condgdon. A question and answer session was held after each of the two screenings at the Sedona International Film Festival. Of course the audience tended to lose their interest in filmmaking and most of the questions focused on Meagan and her experiences. Meagan is an engaging young woman who seems as at home in front of a room full of admirers as she did at the controls of an F-14 Tomcat. One of the real tense elements of the film is seeing Jay and Meagan's efforts to qualify for night landings on carriers. Naval aviators are the only pilots in the world who perform night carrier landings. It was interesting to learn from Meagan that this isn't just an exercise to weed out less competent pilots. When you are "in country", Meagan told the crowd, "most of your traps" (the term used for a carrier landing, referring to catching the tailhook of the plane on one of four wires of the landing deck of a carrier) "are at night." This is due to the length of the sorties, which will begin early in the morning and end after dark.
The film is one which will entertain people of all ages. While the real life footage of Naval Aviators does contain some language that may not be appropriate for everyone, these stories are very inspirational. Meagan and Jay are representative of the thousands of men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis defending this nation. You quickly learn that it is not just in combat that their lives are in danger, just the process of preparing for potential battle can and does lead to tragedy from time to time. One incredible moment in the film shows footage of an aerial training collision from the pilots perspective. I asked Meagan what it was like for her as a pilot to see that footage. She told the audience that every time she sees that scene it is a reminder of just how dangerous their job is and that they can never take things for granted. Then Peyton reminded her of the first time she saw that footage. Peyton had sent it to Meagan in an email and when she opened and watched the clip she just had to sit down for a moment and recover.
This film is up close and personal. Editor Jessica Congden told the audience that about 80% of the film was shot by director Peyton Wilson with a handheld camera by herself. This gives the film a very personal quality and also allowed Wilson to blend in and get footage of the pilots being themselves. While I found it difficult to believe that this strikingly attractive woman was able to blend in unnoticed on a carrier full of mostly men, it was obvious that she was able to gain the trust and cooperation of all those around her. The film gives special thanks to the US Navy for the unprecedented access that was given the filmmakers in making Speed and Angels. As is often the case with films at film festivals, negotiations are underway for the distribution of this movie. If it makes it to the big screen, this is one documentary film that would be worth the price of admission!
Editor's Note: Wondering if this is family friendly? Read Katherine Hammer's review: Speed & Angels: A 12-Year-Old's Perspective .
Note: Due to the layout of the Speed and Angels website direct links to individual pages are not possible.