The granddaddy of all modern big-budget disaster movies, Airport features Burt Lancaster as a Midwestern airport manager, ramping up the drama as much as he can while barking orders from behind a desk. But the heart of the film is in the air, where a 707 is packed with passengers and crew at risk from a twitchy, suicidal bomber (Van Heflin) on board. Juggling soapy subplots (pilot Dean Martin’s affair with pregnant stewardess Jacqueline Bisset, Lancaster’s own work-vs.-marriage woes) with impending airborne doom, this adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel plays like Grand Hotel at 30,000 feet.
It’s all fairly absurd (at least to modern eyes; the subplots involving the bomber and the wily old lady stowaway seem implausible in our age of TSA pat-downs), but the all-star cast bites into writer-director George Seaton’s screenplay like it was Shakespeare. Even with his tipsy-playboy persona, Martin makes a surprisingly reassuring pilot. And the invaluable George Kennedy lands his career-defining role as Joe Patroni, the hyper-competent problem solver who, over four Airport movies, proved the greatest airplane mechanic in film history.