Review: 'The Pursuit Of D.B. Cooper' a Fun, Hot Mess

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 26, 2021

D.B. Cooper is responsible for the only unsolved air piracy crime in aviation history. On November 24, 1971, an unidentified man bought a plane ticket from Seattle to Portland under the name Dan Cooper (misidentified later as D.B) and tricked authorities into giving him $200,000 (over $1 million today) and a parachute, or he would detonate a bomb (that turned out not to be a bomb). Cooper got away and became an outlaw hero to many — one whose identity has never been discovered.

It took Hollywood a decade to make a film about the elusive criminal, but instead of telling the story leading up to, and including, the actual event, "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" begins at the very end of the real story, as D.B. (Treat Williams), is parachuting from the plane into a forest in Washington state. That's where any semblance of factual accounts ends. Allow me to backtrack a bit.

In 1980, J.D. Reed wrote a novel called "Free Fall," speculating on what might have happened to Cooper. Jeffrey Alan Fiskin ("Cutter's Way") penned a screenplay, and John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") signed to direct, but left after shooting one sequence (due to alcohol-related issues, according to Fiskin on the commentary). Buzz Kulik ("Brian's Song") completed the film, with W.D. Richter ("Slither") script doctoring. But the producers were not happy and asked the editor, Roger Spottiswoode ("Terror Train,"), to step in. He reshot an alleged 70% of the film with uncredited revisions by Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"). Kulik's film was said to be too serious and Vietnam vet-trauma focused.

I give this lengthy preamble because there is a better-than-good film somewhere in the fun mess that is "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper."

What we are left with is a strange genre blend that doesn't always work. D.B. is really Jim Meade, and he's being pursued by his former Green Beret instructor, Bill Gruen (Robert Duvall), who made his life a living hell, so the movie becomes a who-has-the-bigger-penis contest with Jim's wife (Kathryn Harrold) thrown in because, well, you need to have a love interest. But Shelton's script also introduces another former soldier (Paul Gleason) who is around for unnecessary comic relief and, at the one-hour mark, turns the film into a "Smokey and the Bandit" rip-off.

Williams is a treat (I just had to), and he makes the silliest moments enjoyable. This was the same year as his best screen performance in Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City."

Ed Flanders appears briefly, which is sad because he's so good. Duvall is wasted as Wile E. Coyote. And Harold is a second-rate Kate Capshaw.

While the film is certainly entertaining, one wonders what Kulik's cut was like or what Frankenheimer would have produced. In 1982, Frankenheimer described the film as "... probably my worst-ever experience." Of course, he would go on to make the 1996 version of "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

The Kino Classics Blu-ray looks terrific, and the sound is wonderful, highlighting an exciting early score by Oscar-winning "Titanic" composer James Horner.

The audio commentary, which is more like an interview between film historian Daniel Kremer and screenwriter Fiskin, is fascinating. Fiskin is honest about the turbulent process and how he had no idea what "the suits" wanted from him. "Who do you have to fuck to get off this movie?" he recalls thinking.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and Film Historian/Filmmaker Daniel Kremer
  • 3 TV Spots
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English Subtitles


    "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper is available on Blu-ray on October 26.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute