Last Flight Home: how to film a good death

Ondi Timoner’s poignant, dignified, articulate documentary follows the assisted suicide of her father Eli, a businessman who moved into philanthropy and community service after suffering an incapacitating stroke.

24 November 2022

By Hannah McGill

Last Flight Home (2022)
Sight and Sound

Through films like Dig! (2004), Join Us (2007), We Live in Public (2009) and Brand: A Second Coming (2015), Ondi Timoner has long explored the boundaries between private and public life, self-preservation and altruism, success and failure. A visible personality in her films, she has formed intense relationships with human subjects, weighing in on their choices via storytelling and editing choices, voiceovers and off-camera comments. Often, she has found her subject matter in the life stories of complex, visionary, but compromised men.

Almost two decades after Dig! made her a breakout star of the then-burgeoning feature documentary scene, it’s as if Timoner’s style and interests have hit an apotheosis – albeit a deeply poignant one. The lives and relationships being delved into in Last Flight Home are her own and those of her immediate family; the extraordinary man at its centre is her father, Eli Timoner. At 92, Eli has decided to avail himself of the legal death available in his home state of California. As his wife Lisa and children Ondi, David and Rachel help their patriarch towards his exit, Ondi films.

If it’s initially hard not to feel protective of Eli’s dignity in this situation, it quickly becomes apparent that his mind is not only sound but exceptionally sharp. So it is that the film’s most affecting observation reveals itself: the presence of mind that legally permits Eli to seek his own death also makes heartbreakingly clear what is being lost. A child of Russian immigrants, Eli was successful in retail before starting the no-frills airline Air Florida in 1972. During his time there, and in the aftermath of a catastrophic plane crash from which the company never recovered, Eli suffered an incapacitating stroke. He subsequently moved into philanthropy and community service.

At one point in this film, Eli resolves to communicate with the President about something, and Ondi points out that this isn’t an elderly man’s fantasy – he knows Joe Biden. His children, too, are clearly impactful individuals: high-achieving, voluble, confident. As with Kirsten Johnson’s more theatrically inclined but similarly cathartic Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020), sniffing out dysfunction or expressing resentment is not the intention. Specific personality traits and dynamics between the family members are apparent and acknowledged, but are shown with tenderness rather than defensiveness or spite. If this family’s capacity to collectively verbalise and process an experience of such intensity may be more exceptional than broadly relatable, their openness has granted us a bracingly positive depiction of a good death.

► Last Flight Home is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.