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There’s a Jewish phrase that people often say after someone dies: “May their memory be a blessing.” It represents different things to different people, but is intended as an active remembrance, a way to both honor and extend the virtue of the deceased. Ondi Timoner’s deeply moving documentary, “Last Flight Home,” ends with a version of this phrase. But every scene serves as an example of its many meaningful facets.
Timoner’s films — including two Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners, “Dig!” and “We Live in Public” — tend to be searching and intense, but none have ever dug more deeply than this one. Last year, when her father Eli was 93 and failing swiftly, he declared that he wanted to end his life on his own terms. Because his home state of California has a Death with Dignity law, he had the freedom to make that choice under carefully prescribed conditions. The first of these was a 15-day waiting period — and this is the time Timoner records.
Whereas documentarian Kirsten Johnson took a high-concept approach to her father’s decline in 2020’s Sundance standout “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Timoner uses a stripped-down, totally straightforward method. She sets up a camera in her parent’s living room, where her father is resting in a hospital bed and her mother is silently worrying on the couch. And then she begins counting down the days.
On Day 15, the family reminisces about their life together. Through old home movies and faded photographs, we see Eli and his wife, Lisa, as a handsome couple with three cute young children. Eli founded Air Florida in 1972, and Timoner shows us in a range of ways that the company’s motto — “Fly a Little Kindness” — reflected Eli’s lifelong personal ethos.
He was a philanthropist and fundraiser for a range of important causes, and as we learn from past employees, he aimed to treat everyone in his company with equal respect. Though Eli and Lisa do reference some serious financial difficulties, their daughter focuses primarily on the positive. If there were rifts among this tightly-knit clan, we don’t hear about them. And here, it feels right: This is a movie 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 to assess the practicalities of Eli’s coming death, lining up doctors and discussing medications. An obituary draft is read to him on Day 7, and a meeting with a death doula is set up on Day 5. On Day 2, his grandsons go into his closet to pick out the ties they’re going to wear to his funeral.
If this sounds unbearably sad, well — let’s just say it’s probably for the best that you can see this movie in the privacy of your own home, with a very large box of tissues close at hand.
But it’s Eli who really defines the tone, and it is revelatory to watch the way he handles this most human, and humbling, of experiences. He is unable to get out of bed or to speak with much strength. But he’s not sad or bitter or even scared. He is purely grateful for the freedom to choose when and how to define his final days. When he Zooms with old friends and colleagues, who reminisce about tennis games and business meetings, we can see how the most fleeting moments build memories. When he prays with Ondi’s sister Rachel, a Rabbi, we witness firsthand the value of generational rituals.
He tells his heartbroken wife that he has every intention of going to Heaven, where he will “make some kind of a protective shield around your lives.” First, though, his family plans to do the same for him.
After one of his grandsons asks him for advice on how to live well, Eli says, “Start off with respect for the people you don’t know, and love for the people you do know.” “Last Flight Home” represents the results of a life already lived by this standard. The Timoners’ tiny living room is so overflowing with love for Eli that we can almost see a physical cloak of gratitude, respect and affection surrounding him at all times.
He remains a proud liberal until the end, but despite the controversial nature of California’s End of Life legislation, Ondi never explicitly injects politics into the film (though there is a very sweet cameo from Rachel Maddow). She doesn’t need to. It’s hard to imagine anyone judging Eli for choosing, as Ondi says, “to be thoughtful and conscious about his departure.” She also notes with gratitude that this choice is a luxury many others never get, a point underscored by his visitors’ ever-present pandemic masks.
Timoner’s films are always entertaining or engaging but they also start with an irresistible hook, like badly-behaved rock stars (“DIG!”) or hard-living artists (“Brand: A Second Coming,” the biopic “Mapplethorpe”). Here, she calls upon her talents and experience to tell the unassuming story of a man who lived quietly, as a devoted husband and dedicated friend and father. Profound in its simplicity, wrenching in its honesty, and beautiful in its humanity, “Last Flight Home” is the blessing Eli Timoner earned.
“Last Flight Home” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.