It was just over ten years ago that acclaimed film producer Cassian Elwes climbed aboard a JetBlue flight from JFK to LAX. By all accounts, it should have been just another flight for Elwes and certainly it was a flight he'd done many times before. In the middle of producing Lee Daniels' The Butler and Dallas Buyers Club, Elwes's flight turned out to be anything but ordinary when a withdrawn but volatile military vet began displaying increasingly aggressive behaviors in what most would describe as a psychological breakdown of sorts.
Initially, Elwes began "tweeting" the experience with a series of tweets that would end up going viral. However, with the mid-air chaos becoming increasingly risky for passengers, crew, and the vet himself, Elwes volunteered to sit next to the passenger hoping that conversation might serve as a distraction. While the two talked about movies, the plane would end up diverting to Denver where the man, Marcus Covington, was arrested on federal charges and detained in a maximum-security facility where he faced a possible 20 years in prison.
Passenger C, written and directed by Elwes, is his story as he remembers it.
At the time, Elwes would be lauded for his sense of compassion for this man and for his ability to de-escalate what could have easily been a much more traumatic situation. Initially promising to stay in touch with Covington, Elwes would admittedly get caught up in his busy producing life including bringing to life the difficult to sell but impossible to not love Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyers Club. While Covington faced a 20-year sentence, he would end up being sentenced to time served plus three years of court supervision. It was a year after his release that Elwes would remain true to his commitment and this story, Passenger C, would become an inspiring story with a surprising redemption.
Filmed in black-and-white by Andrew Park, Passenger C feels very much like a quasi-documentary. It's a narrative feature with effectively interwoven elements of truth from the incident itself and from Elwes's own producing life. It's an unusual approach, but it's an incredibly effective approach. I found myself not only incredibly engaged by Passenger C, but I was also incredibly moved by it.
You could easily be forgiven for expecting Passenger C to be a syrupy, sentimentalized tale with the usual Hollywood-style happy ending. Yet, the inspiration here comes precisely because Elwes, in his directorial debut, chooses to avoid sentimentality in favor of a matter-of-factness that feels remarkably satisfying.
Jon Jacobs dazzles as Elwes by showing us both the empathetic, richly human Elwes who could easily sit down next to an unpredictable and potentially dangerous fellow passenger and engage in normal conversation and the same Elwes who headed William Morris Independent for 15 years and who has, quite literally, either produced or arranged financing for some of the most memorable films of the last 40 years starting with 1983's Oxford Blues and continuing through today with pending projects like Pedro Pascal's The Uninvited and Desperation Road starring Garrett Hedlund and Mel Gibson.
Oh, and because I know you're wondering - yes, he's also Cary's brother.
I think what excites me most about Eric Bruneau's performance as Marcus "Marco" Covington is that it radiates the same compassion that was displayed on that flight and treats Covington as a human being. Rather than play up his traumas and dramas, Passenger C portrays him as the real-life human being he was and is and treats him with dignity even when he's making not so great choices. Bruneau exudes a vulnerability amidst Marco's breakdown and never lets us forget that he's a human being even in his most challenging moments.
Among the supporting players, Mary-Bonner Baker really shines as Kim while Cheri Moon and Makenna Timm also have moments to shine.
Passenger C is very much centered around that 2012 flight that would change both men's lives, ultimately, for the better. However, quite wisely, Elwes makes the film bigger than that one incident just as he refuses to define either man by that one incident. Passenger C is also a fascinating journey into Elwes's career and the journey, in particular, that he experienced bringing Dallas Buyers Club to life after trying for 11 years to get his hands on rights for the film.
There's never been any doubt that Elwes is, quite simply, one of the most influential people when it comes to independent film and it's rather dazzling that Passenger C is a strong independent project with the kind of unique cinematic voice one seldom experiences from the Hollywood studios. From Andrew Park's pristine black-and-white lensing to patient, effective editing by Paul Buhl and Kyle Tekiela, Passenger C is a thoughtful, emotionally honest, and redemptive film that lingers in the heart and mind long after the closing credits have rolled. Currently on its festival journey, here's hoping Passenger C finds a quality arthouse distribution deal that will bring it to the wider audience it deserves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic