Sometimes, a real-life story comes along that is so crazy, so peopled by larger-than-life characters, that a documentarian just can’t fail – no matter how imperfectly their film or series turns out.
There are myriad examples, with the most obvious being the first season of Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” (2020), about roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic and his harebrained, criminal schemes.
A more recent example is another Netflix series, “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” That somewhat overcooked series recounted the bonkers story of Sarma Melngailis and her downfall thanks to Anthony Strangis – a fraudster who, among other claims, assured the successful New York restaurateur he could make her beloved pooch immortal.
And now we have HBO’s “The Invisible Pilot,” a three-parter that starts with a crop duster and ends with the Iran-Contra scandal. You know you’re dealing with an outlandish tale when it begins as a small news item on an Arkansas TV station and ends with a live broadcast on C-SPAN. (So presumably more viewers saw the small news item.)
For a critic, this kind of show is a nightmare to write about. Because although we’re talking about a story in the public domain, it’s also one that most folks will either have long forgotten or simply never heard of – making the revelations real jaw-droppers.
HBO did something similar last year with its wonderful series “The Lady and the Dale,” which revolved around fraud, revolutionary three-wheeler cars, a transgender pioneer and the father of Tucker Carlson. (This may come as a shock to you, but Dick Carlson was a horrible bigot too.)
Compounding the problem is the way documentarians Phil Lott and Ari Mark have structured their show chronologically and in a way that hoodwinks the viewer into believing a certain narrative, thus heightening the dramatic twists – and there are plenty.
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So, if you want to experience “The Invisible Pilot” the way I did – by knowing next to nothing about the actual story and being stunned by its startling revelations – let me just say that, despite some gaping holes in the show, that crazy storyline is well worth three hours of your time and you should stop reading here.
Anyone perusing beyond this point will learn some major spoilers that may detract from the show’s pleasures.
Only in America?
“I’ll tell you this. The story of Gary Betzner is proof that truth is stranger than fiction – and it could only have happened in America,” a character advises us at the start of “The Invisible Pilot.” And what we see over the following episodes does nothing to contradict that statement.
This is a sprawling, scattershot series about Betzner, a daredevil crop duster from the dusty Arkansas town of Hazen – which may not be the buckle on the Bible Belt but could be one of its loops.
Right from the start, the documentarians are happy to trick viewers by withholding key information about the titular character for the purpose of creating a more dramatic reveal later. That’s sometimes frustrating but a valid artistic choice, yet it does suggest that, ultimately, the most rewarding way of telling this story will be a fictionalized account in which the audience is in on the scam from the start.
The first half hour of the series focuses on the events leading up to September 19, 1977, when Gary drove wife Sally and daughter Sara Lee (one of three kids at this stage) to the White River Bridge, stopped the car midway, got out and jumped to his death, apparently having run into trouble with the “Dixie Mafia” – a phrase I will never not find funny.
Except he didn’t. With the help of his wife – I won’t even try to explain how hypnosis apparently factored into this – he faked his own death and fled to nearby Texas. Which is when Betzner makes a grand entrance to the documentary and takes up the story.
It’s only at this point that we understand the earlier sour comment by a retired local police officer who grouses, “I don’t approve of what he did. And I don’t think he deserves to have a movie made about him.” (The presence of Adam McKay as an executive producer here suggests that this may yet happen, with the “Don’t Look Up”/“Winning Time” creator presumably in pole position to make it.)
Betzner’s presence is both a blessing and a curse for the documentarians. A charismatic Southerner, even in his 80s he’s a real charmer with a smile as wide as the Mississippi and with more tales than the Bible. Yet his version of events is never challenged by the documentarians and the series increasingly becomes something of a mythologizing exercise.
Still, what events these are: nudist hippie communes in Hawaii, numerous fake identities, marijuana drops in Miami graduating to multimillion-dollar cocaine runs for Colombian drug lords (including Pablo Escobar) at the height of Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs.”
Betzner was a coke smuggler who clearly enjoyed the high life: He was more familiar with white lines than Grandmaster Flash was. “I rather enjoyed cocaine smuggling,” he beams at one point. “You’d make so much money without making much effort.” How much exactly? He says he had $30 million in his bank account at one point in the early ’80s.
And then things got really crazy.
While smuggling for the Colombians, he was asked to do some CIA-orchestrated gun runs to Central America for the rebels battling the communist regime in Nicaragua – which is how he finally fell into the clutches of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in November 1984, on a return flight with a plane full of cocaine after dropping off an arms cache in Costa Rica.
After being sentenced to a 27-year jail term, and with Washington abuzz with phrases like “Nicaraguan Contras,” “Oliver North” and “Hezbollah kidnap victims,” Betzner came to understand that he was in the middle of the biggest political scandal of the ’80s – and that his story might be worth something.
This is how he ended up testifying before the U.S. Congress about his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair – something Reagan somehow managed to float above even though it was very clear he was on board with the sale of U.S. arms to Iran via Israel – the Israeli angle is left unexplored here – and was using those funds to bankroll the rebels in Nicaragua.
Don’t worry, even with all these spoilers, plenty of surprises await you in “The Invisible Pilot.” (I didn’t even mention how Gary ends up having breakfast with a future U.S. vice president in Congress or the wild sex parties in Florida.)
What you will not find, however, is a real sense of who Gary Betzner is, and why he’s so oblivious to the long-term pain and damage he caused his children by faking his own death. Many details in his colorful private life also go uncovered.
This is ultimately a man who sees himself as the victim in the Contras story, aggrieved that his testifying before Congress didn’t grant him a get-out-of-jail-free card, rather than ever reflecting on all the crimes that eventually led him there. And a highly skilled pilot really should know the dangers of having your head in the clouds all the time.
‘White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch’ (Netflix)
After a week in which Netflix’s shares ended up worth little more than a Russian general’s promises, here is some good news for the streaming giant: Its new documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” is a very enjoyable film that gets the balance just right between snark and schadenfreude.
As its title makes clear, Alison Klayman’s bright and breezy effort charts how a venerable “masculine brand” went from selling fishing gear and shaving cream to becoming the must-have brand for preppy America in the 1990s – before a series of scandals saw it come undone by the mid-2010s.
If you never visited an A&F store in their nightmarish pomp, just imagine going to a nightclub where you’re the ugliest, oldest person present, a place where the store gatekeepers are two topless, ripped white dudes. It was as if Hitler or Tucker Carlson had dreamed up a clothing franchise – and there may be times watching A&F’s old ad campaigns where you find yourself thinking of Carlson’s latest film, “The End of Man.” (Though at least A&F never endorsed “testicle tanning.”)
“White Hot” may not be about the most pressing matter in the world right now, but it’s a fascinating insight into how a company successfully sold a fiction of what modern young America was meant to look like: white, athletic, thin, photogenic.
A former A&F merchandiser memorably recounts how, at the brand’s peak in the late ’90s, “You could write ‘A&F’ with dog shit, put it on a baseball hat and sell it for 40 bucks” – which may finally explain that horrible odor in my closet.
But then the shit really did hit the fan and the franchise found itself fighting allegations of racism all the way up to the Supreme Court – and losing. Forget dubious baseball caps, this really is a bad look, and led to the store being voted “most hated U.S. retailer” in 2016.
Jewish billionaire Les Wexner – aka “The Merlin of the Mall” – was the brains behind A&F’s initial rebranding, and while he escapes quite lightly here, I suspect he won’t be so lucky in July when Hulu airs a docu-series about another of his brands, “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” and a certain Jeffrey Epstein.
One of the reasons cited for how A&F became so successful is that it happened in an age before social media, so criticism of its preppy-white-hunks branding never truly caught fire. Wexner may be pining for such times again come July.
“The Invisible Pilot” is available on Yes VOD, StingTV, Hot VOD and Cellcom tv in Israel, and HBO Max in the United States. “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” is available now on Netflix.