Both a deeply moving ode and revealing account of end-of-life treatment regulations in California, Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home is like few other documentaries. Timoner extensively films conversation and goings-on surrounding her father Eli’s decision to end his life in early 2021, which in California and few other states, is a legal but heavily scrutinized process. For reasons apparently both deeply personal and more widely journalistic, Timoner’s film divides its time between telling Eli’s life story up until a tragic accident severely affected his motor functions and career prospects, and diligently depicting the last two weeks of a very kind and beloved man’s life.
This latter raison d’être feels at first like a morbid yet ingenious setup for a film, with the legally-mandated 15-day waiting period for the delivery of life-ending drugs providing a constrained running time for Eli and his family’s attempt to say goodbye and understand what the end of a loved one’s life means on various levels. Gradually, however, the mission to make these final weeks meaningful evolves into something simultaneously more personal and infinitely more universal. As Timoner and her family arrange for video calls with various people Eli has crossed paths with over the course of his life, we witness accounts of his generosity, support, kindness, and loyalty that provide perhaps the most intensely heartwarming cinematic example of our oft-underappreciated capacity to individually affect the people we meet since It’s A Wonderful Life.
The viewer bears witness as Eli – a man in his nineties, deeply loving to his family but enthusiastic to the point of desperate to end his life due to incapacitating and painful heart disease – begins to re-evaluate his own sense of success and failure. Last Flight Home focuses mainly on Eli’s journey after his decision to die, but the film is inextricably linked to the wider political question of whether to allow people to make such a decision at all. Timoner’s film cannot help but demonstrate and reiterate the value and importance of granting human beings this choice, and commendably showcases some heroic nurses who passionately defend their work as a liberating option for those who simply wish to have a choice on how they go out.
The political relevance and its personal consequences lead the film into wrenchingly philosophical territory at multiple points, particularly when examining how the terrible accident Eli experienced objectively affected their family’s means, and how it subjectively affected his sense of self-worth. Eli set up Air Florida in the early 1970s and turned it into a notable and game-changing enterprise, complete with humanistic arguments about fairness and quality of experience for its customers. However, a freak accident led to a stroke, and put him in a wheelchair, which further led to deep-seated intolerance at his own company’s board forcing him out of a leadership position. These deeply unfair events have clearly weighed heavily on Eli’s self-perception, and as the film depicts, it is only when lovingly confronted with the amount of love he put out into the world and earned back in return, that this man can see himself as having made a valuable contribution.
In this manner Timoner’s film provides a rousing and rather beautiful spin on one of the Beatles’ most enduring proverbs — as Last Flight Home shows us plainly and earnestly, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.