Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home is a personal, emotionally raw documentary that deals with familial grief and saying goodbye to a loved one.
A documentarian and two-time Sundance winner, Ondi Timoner has previously covered rock bands (Dig!), tech entrepreneurs (We Live In Public) and British comedians (Brand: A Second Coming). However, her new film Last Flight Home turns her gaze onto her family. In early 2021, as the world was still fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Ondi’s father Eli was admitted to hospital. Paralysed for 40 years after a stroke, Eli has been struggling with his health for a while. But then he makes a startling revelation. He wants to end his life, believing he is a burden to his family and his wife of 50+ years Lisa. As he later tells a close friend, “I don’t wanna fight anymore. I just want peace.”
In California (where Eli and Lisa live), the End of Life Option Act gives terminally ill residents the chance to access physician-assisted suicide care. When the process is activated, there is a 15-day waiting period as multiple doctors check Eli is of sound mind and willing to end his life. As Eli returns home and the necessary preparations are made, his other children, David and Rachel, gather to be by his side. And the long waiting period is used as a time of reflection to recount memories, reveal what Eli has meant to them and ready themselves to say their final goodbyes.
Ondi Timoner has said she didn’t intend Last Flight Home to be a feature-length documentary. But during the editing process, what was supposed to be a short, private memorial video became this extremely personal documentary about familial grief. That personal touch is present throughout a film where Timoner is the director, producer, editor and cinematographer (with her partner, Morgan Doctor, providing the score). The film is contained within the 15-day waiting period, mostly sticking to Eli’s living room, where he stays in his hospital bed. And it is shot by Timoner in a bare, verité, home movie style that works with how Last Flight Home depicts the final days of his life.
As the countdown begins (shown with the intertitle ’15 Days Remaining’), we see Eli saying goodbye to the people whose lives he impacted (because of COVID, most of these final meetings take place over Zoom). There is concern over whether he can take the important medication – particularly as no one in the family can help him. He gets to read his obituary. His grandchildren ask for final bits of advice. All this culminates in his final moments, captured on camera for the documentary’s climax. It is one of many scenes filled with emotion and tough to watch (perhaps too tough).
The film makes it clear that Eli Timoner was an extraordinary man. Kind and loving with a wry sense of humour and a progressive set of views (he hates Trump as much as he loves Rachel Maddow). Last Flight Home shows him trying to find closure for his regrets and self-perceived failures, calling on Rachel – who has become a rabbi in Brooklyn – for spiritual guidance. Furthermore, he lived a fascinating life. He was the founder of Air Florida, the fastest-growing airline in the world during the 1970s. He successfully pushed for airline deregulation and tackled segregated unions. He knew Joe Biden. And then came the stroke that changed his family’s life, with the film highlighting how he lost his wealth yet quietly persisted in times of strife. However, all this backstory is covered pretty quickly compared to the rest of the film, which might have benefitted from more insight into Eli.
Despite this, Last Flight Home is a personal, reflective and emotionally raw documentary about saying goodbye to a loved one. It is a difficult subject matter, as exemplified in the heartrending Dick Johnson Is Dead) but Ondi Timoner films it with deft and a refreshingly verité style. This documentary could only have been possible with the complete access and trust given by her family or ‘T-Team’. But it could also only be made with loving intentions, something installed by Eli’s unconditional love for his family. So in a way, Last Flight Home is possible thanks to Eli. And as he uses the little time he has left to find closure, his loved ones – and the audience – are with him every step.
Last Flight Home premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 10, 2022. Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.