A beautiful document of a father’s last days
There is a Jewish phrase that people often say after someone dies: “May their memory be a blessing.” This can mean different things to different people. However, it is meant to be an active remembrance and a way of honoring and extending the virtues of the deceased. Ondi Timoner’s deeply moving documentary, “Last Flight Home”, This phrase is used at the end. Each scene is a good example of its many significant facets.
Timoner’s films – including two Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners, “Dig!” “We live in public” – tend to be researched and intense, but none have ever dug deeper than this one. Eli, her father, was 93 and failing fast. He said last year that he wanted his life to end on his own terms. California, his home state, has a death with dignity law that allowed him to make the decision under certain conditions. The first of these was a 15-day waiting period – and that’s how long Timoner records.
While documentarian Kirsten Johnson took a conceptual approach to her father’s decline in the 2020 Sundance standout “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Timoner takes a simple and straightforward approach. She sets up a camera in her parents’ living room, where her father rests in a hospital bed and her mother worries silently on the couch. Then she starts counting the days.
The family reminisces about their life together on Day 15. Through faded photos and old home movies, Eli and Lisa are a beautiful couple with three young children. Eli founded Air Florida in 1972, and Timoner shows us in various ways that the company’s motto – “Fly a Little Kindness” – reflected Eli’s personal ethos throughout his life.
He was a fundraiser and philanthropist for many important causes. We learn from former employees that he tried to treat all of his employees with equal respect. While Eli and Lisa are open to discussing financial struggles, their daughter tends to focus on the positive. If there were divisions within this close-knit clan, we don’t hear about it. And here, it feels right: it’s a film about the impact of one man’s life, and Ondi’s father remains, until the end, a remarkably sanguine force.
On Day 12, the family and their heroic hospice nurse begin weighing the practicalities of Eli’s impending death, lining up doctors, and discussing medication. A draft of his obituary is delivered to Eli on Day 7 and a meeting with a doula on Day 5 is arranged. On Day 2, her grandsons come into her closet to choose the ties they will wear to her funeral.
If that sounds unbearably sad, well – let’s just say it’s probably best that you can see this movie in the privacy of your own home, with a really big box of tissues handy.
But it’s Eli who really sets the tone, and it’s telling how he handles this most human and humbling experience. He can’t get out of bed or speak forcefully. But he is neither sad, nor bitter, nor even frightened. He is simply grateful to have the ability to decide when and how he will spend his final days. He zooms in with his former colleagues and friends, who share stories of business meetings and tennis matches, and it’s easy to see how fleeting moments can create memories. When he prays with Ondi’s sister, Rachel, a rabbi, we witness firsthand the value of generational rituals.
He tells his wife in pain that he is going to heaven and will be there with his family. “Make a sort of protective shield around your lives.” However, his family is the first to do the exact same thing for him.
Eli answers a question from one of his grandsons about how to live well. “Start with respect for people you don’t know and love for people you know.” “Last Flight Home” is the result of a life lived by that standard. The small living room of the Timoners overflows with so much love for Eli that we can almost see a physical mantle of gratitude, respect and affection surrounding him at all times.
He remains a proud liberal to the end, but despite the controversial nature of California’s end-of-life legislation, Ondi never explicitly injects politics into the film (although there is a very sweet appearance from Rachel Maddow). She doesn’t need it. It’s hard to imagine anyone judging Eli for choosing, as Ondi puts it, “to be thoughtful and aware of his departure.” She also gratefully notes that this choice is a luxury that many others never get, a point underscored by the ubiquitous pandemic masks of her visitors.
Timoner’s movies are always entertaining or engaging, but they also start with an irresistible hook, like ill-mannered rock stars (“DIG!”) or tough performers (“Brand: A Second Coming,” The biopic “Mapplethorpe”) . This is where she draws on her skills and experience to tell the simple story of a man who lived quietly as a loving husband and friend. It’s simple in its simplicity, but it’s honest and heartbreakingly human. “Last flight home” Eli Timoner was blessed.
“Last Flight Home” will premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.