The Invisible Pilot is a three-part docuseries by Phil Lott and Ari Mark, with Adam McKay as executive producer. There are several twists and turns in the story of Gary Betzner, a veteran pilot. It will air on PBS in the fall of 2018.
He spent his spare time as a farmer in Arkansas while raising his two children with his second wife, Sally (he also had a child from a previous marriage). Betzner committed himself by jumping off a bridge in 1977 while his wife and daughter were in the car; his corpse was never found.
A 1970s car drives around Hazen, Arkansas. “I’m going to tell you this,” a voice says. It has been said that Gary Betzner’s case shows that truth may be stranger than fiction.”
Using interview footage from Craig Hodges, a childhood friend of Gary’s son Travis, Lott and Mark tell the story of Gary Betzner’s relationship with his three children over 15 years, starting with Sally and ending with Travis’ sister Sarah Lee.
Betzner’s first wife Claudia and their daughter Polly, born shortly before Betzner divorced his first wife and married Sally, are also brought into the conversation. They were all of different ages at the time of Betzner’s suicide.
The first episode tells the story of Betzner’s complicated background and his unusually liberal politics for Arkansas, especially when it comes to narcotics. His relationship with his children – he was known as “Disneyland Dad” to Polly, who only rarely saw him because they lived in different states – and his relationship with Sally is discussed.
Then we get a surprise, which is no surprise if you know what’s going on: Betzner sits down in a chair to speak. Yes, he is still alive; in 1977 he pretended to commit suicide. He and Sally started teaching themselves self-hypnosis to trick Sally into believing that Gary had committed suicide by hanging himself.
What motivated him to fake his death?
Because he was involved in drug trafficking in addition to dusting fields, especially after traveling to Miami in search of cocaine, he was arrested.
He was suffering from a severe gout attack and he had heard that cocaine could help. He was detained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) during a covert operation in the city of Florida.
He was later jailed for drug possession in Arkansas while awaiting trial in the federal case. Facing the prospect of decades in prison, he decided to flee, take on a new name, and invite Sally and their children to join him later. When he finally left the scene of his “suicide,” the strange events that followed were just beginning to unfold.
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Lott and Mark had at their disposal a wealth of information about Gary Betzner, which they had to piece together to create a compelling story. Some of the most valuable information was the interview footage Hodges had collected of Betzner and his family over the past ten years.
However, some of their decisions about how to bring the story into The Invisible Pilot resulted in the first episode appearing more fragmented and harder to deal with than they probably planned.
The first episode, usually a biography, takes way too long to get to the point where Betzner was leading a double life, with his wife Sally being an integral part of it. While we learn about his marriages and how he persuaded Sally to try marijuana for the first time, we don’t remember anything about his role in the drug smuggling business until more than halfway through the program, when we meet Betzner.
However, the wait to introduce Betzner and then talk about his case as if he were dead brought a pleasant surprise to the audience. However, it detracted from the story as we now had to hear about the day of his “suicide” from his perspective after hearing about it from the perspective of Sally, Travis and Sarah Lee.
It got a bit monotonous and we were more interested in how Betzner got involved in the drug trade. Merging interviews with Betzner and his family from Hodges’s material spanning more than a decade was another distracting method used in the film.
Other than showing the viewer how everyone involved has aged, the films don’t provide much insight into how the family’s perspective on Betzner’s life has changed over time. In the group, Travis is the only one who seems to be transforming, from a person in his thirties who seems traumatized by his past but has dealt with it to a man in his 50s who has let his inner demons take over.
We expect the second and third installments to be a bit livelier as we delve into Betzner’s life after his “suicide”; after all, there is 45 years of material to cover, and there will likely be more smuggling and dealings with the federal government.
In contrast, the first episode does the series a disservice by trying to stretch the story too far and be overly sweet with the material the filmmakers have at their disposal.
Our impression is that after you read the first episode of The Invisible Pilot, the insanity of Gary Betzner’s story starts to build. However, reaching that stage is complicated in the first episode. LOOK AT IT.