One of the great unsolved mysteries of all time is the fate of D.B. Cooper. In November of 1971 a man going by the name Dan Cooper hijacked a plane in between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. He claimed to have a bomb and demanded $200,000 and a parachute. His requests were granted upon landing in Seattle, he then released the passengers before the plane took off again. Shortly after takeoff, he lowered the rear hatch of the plane and jumped. Cooper was never heard from again; his fate remains a mystery. Our film today, coming ten years after the hijacking, uses the Cooper story as the starting point of a fictional story of what happened afterwards…1981’s The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper.
The film begins with Cooper (Treat Williams) jumping from the plane…the only actual verified fact from the Cooper story that makes it into the film. He parachutes into a dense forest area where it is quickly apparent to us that he has done a vast amount of planning. Hidden in the woods are disguises, change of clothes, weapons and a vehicle to aid in his escape. Gradually Cooper (who’s actual name is Jim Meade) starts to make his way out of the area.
Meanwhile, an insurance investigator, Bob Gruen (Robert Duvall), is hot on the trail. He is working on behalf of the airline which paid the ransom and is anxious to get the dough back. As Gruen talks to one of the flight attendants from the hijacked flight, she tells him that Cooper wore a black wire bracelet. This catches Gruen’s interest for he wears one just like it. Turns out, Meade/Cooper served in the military under Gruen. In fact, Gruen used to ride Meade pretty hard. Immediately, Gruen suspects that Meade could be the culprit.
This leads Gruen to Meade’s small Wyoming home. There he meets Meade’s ex-wife Hannah (Kathryn Harrold) who continues to run their river rafting business. Gruen figures Meade may just return to whisk his ex-wife away now that he’s got some moolah. That hunch turns out to be right. He ends up pursuing the couple in a wild white-water chase. Also joining the pursuit is another army buddy of Meade’s, Remson (Paul Gleason), who remembered his pal discussing the idea of hijacking a plane and hopes to cash in.
Bringing the D.B. Cooper story to the screen is a solid idea, but this film goes about it in all the wrong ways. Though we don’t know Cooper’s ultimate fate, there are many details of the case that are known and would make for an intriguing piece of cinema. This story really has nothing to do with that story. It simply hijacks the D.B. Cooper name and creates its own story from there. In this case, the truth is much more interesting than fiction.
The biggest problem I had with the story is the awfully big coincidence that the airline’s insurance adjuster just happened to be the hijacker’s hard-as-nails ex-commanding officer. That’s just way too convenient. What’s worse is that it could’ve been made to work. The premise could’ve been that Meade/Cooper knew that Gruen worked in such a capacity for the airline. He knew he would be put on the case; knew Gruen would know where to look for him. The whole thing could’ve been a setup to humiliate Gruen. There were a few flashback scenes of Gruen humiliating Meade in their army days, so I really thought that was where the film was going. Alas, no. I actually think that the film would’ve worked infinitely better had that been the case.
The film does have a few positive aspects, however. Robert Duvall does a great job with his role, which is just what you would expect out of Duvall. Paul Gleason has a few funny moments, though his character’s presence is another stretch in the believability department. The white-water raft chase is also a fun aspect of the film. It manages to look truly dangerous and is the one sequence of the film that manages a strong amount of tension. I also enjoyed the use of an airplane graveyard as a location for the film’s final showdown. I wondered if this was the same location that was used in Can’t Buy Me Love.
I guess the filmmakers were trying to go for the something along the lines of Smokey and the Bandit…a wild chase comedy. Too bad they couldn’t see the potential in a straight telling of the D.B. Cooper story. I for one look forward to that film being made one day.