When Ondi Timoner’s 92-year-old father told her that he was determined to end his life, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker (“Dig!,” “We Live in Public”) naturally decided to capture his final weeks on camera — to record the 15-day waiting period mandated by the California End of Life Option Act. Deep within her grief a few weeks later, she found herself assembling this most intimate home video footage into something intended for other people to see: a (relatively) commercial product that would premiere at a festival and play in select theaters before living in perpetuity on VOD.
On paper, that might sound like a morbid and/or cynical exercise in mining public content from private loss. On screen, however, Timoner’s warm, open, and unexpectedly gentle “Last Flight Home” rescues a rare grace from the inherent performativity of saying goodbye. The director’s camera encourages her family to make themselves vulnerable and meet the moment head-on, while legal euthanasia offers them enough control over the timeline to let go of their precious Eli with love in both hands.
Yes, this crushingly personal film can make you feel like you’re intruding on a sacred ritual between perfect strangers, but that sense of trespassing (or TMI) is also what allows “Last Flight Home” to be such an immediate argument for the universal right to die.
Eli Timoner did not arrive at his decision to die lightly. A first-generation immigrant who founded the now-defunct Air Florida and grew the low-cost carrier into one of the fastest-growing and most affordable airlines in the United States, Timoner suffered a massive stroke in 1982 — five years after he relinquished his role as chairman of the company, and a few weeks after a tragic Air Florida crash that “Last Flight Home” opts to omit — and was paralyzed on the left side of his body for the rest of his life. That sudden disability saw Timoner beset with such a profound sense of shame that he resigned from Air Florida and soft-retired because he thought people wouldn’t respect any business whose CEO was in a wheelchair.
Once a prolific philanthropist and a widely beloved pillar of his community, Timoner shrank into a shell of his former self. But he was also fiercely loved in spite of his perceived failures, and that love was enough to sustain him for the last 40 years of his life. It was only when he was confronted by severe breathing issues in January 2021, in the midst of a pandemic that put his imminent mortality into even clearer focus, that Timoner began telling people he was ready to go.
“Help me end this agony,” he croaks to his daughter in the opening moments of the film she eventually made about that process.
What follows is an unvarnished, day-by-day account of bringing Eli home and preparing for him to leave it. The first portion of the film is defined by the matrix of Zoom calls that brings the scattered Timoner family together and allows them to participate in their patriarch’s decision. As “Last Flight Home” takes flight, the Los Angeles house where the vast majority of it takes place grows increasingly crowded with Eli’s children (including his daughter Rachel, whose rabbinical energy helps facilitate the many difficult exercises that fill these days of waiting), their children, and so on.
No matter how many people might be standing around Eli’s bed, his wife Elissa always manages to remain in focus; she rolls her eyes at all of the fuss and attention, only to lower her guard in the film’s inevitably heart-wrenching final scenes. But it’s the inevitability of those scenes that allows them to be so beautiful, as scheduling Eli’s departure invites his family to think of their loss as a mutual letting go — to redeem the perverse relief that comes with a long-suffering loved one’s death, and grant Eli the gift of knowing that he was and will continue to be loved. Anyone who’s stood at the foot of a deathbed and found their thoughts hopelessly clouded by the uncertainty of when and how nature might take its course will be able to appreciate just how valuable that gift must have been, especially because Eli was often lucid enough to receive it.
The fact is that most families would struggle to be as open and honest as Timoner’s is here, just as most incapacitated 92-year-old men would struggle to sustain a film like this through sheer force of will. But Eli is one hell of a character, and he’s determined to go out with his sense of humor intact (one of the first things we hear him say is how much he’d like to see Trump’s balls get stuffed down his own throat as he’s booted out of the White House, a wish that Timoner was effectively granted before the end).
The director likens her father to “a great tree I’ve been able to shake under,” and her film makes it clear how freely he offered his shade; former Air Florida colleagues who Timoner may not have spoken to for decades make time to Zoom in, tears in their eyes. When Eli, mere hours before his death, grips his grandson’s hand for the last time, he’s more concerned about giving warmth than taking it.
Timoner wasn’t perfect, but “Last Flight Home” — despite being cut with an eye towards the comfort it might provide to the filmmaker’s mother and relatives — recognizes why those imperfections are precisely why it was so crucial that he get to choose how to leave this world. Ondi Timoner doesn’t shy away from the details of that process (offering special attention to the drug cocktail that stops her father’s heart, and the nitty-gritty of administering it), but the procedural aspect restores an element of cause-and-effect that ironically makes Eli’s death feel all the more natural.
“We don’t have to wait until the last night of our lives to measure our lives in love,” Rachel says during her first Yom Kippur sermon following her father’s death, “What if we begin right now? What if we begin today?” It’s a nice thought, but most of us will never be able to act on it. How beautiful that Eli Timoner and his family were at least able to know when the last night of his life would be.
MTV Documentary Films will release “Last Flight Home” in theaters on Friday, October 7.
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