Death comes to us all throughout our lives. It can be frightening. It can be a time of sharing love. It can also be one of the most intimate times in people’s lives. In Last Flight Home, documentarian Ondi Timoner turns her camera on her family during the final days of her father Eli’s life. In doing so, she takes us on a journey that is filled with love, sorrow, joy, courage, pain, humor, memories, and spiritual insight and renewal.
Eli Timoner led a life that had many ups and downs. He started Florida Air, which at the time was the fastest growing airline in the country. He was a great success story. He was a philanthropist who served on various charitable boards. But a stroke ended all that. His debts grew. He was barely able to provide for his family. In the years that followed he and his wife led a simple life, but often complicated by his health. They raised three children in a home that was filled with love.
Most of the film takes place during the last fifteen days of Eli’s life. After decades of being disabled from a stroke and now suffering from COPD and congestive heart disease, he can no longer even get out of bed. He has decided, as is legal in California, to end his life. His family supports his decision, not because they want him to die, but because it gives him control over his dying. The process takes fifteen days and various steps that must be followed.
The fifteen days become a true blessing for Eli and his family. He gets a chance to visit via computer with many friends from his past. His children and grandchildren get to spend these days sharing the love that bound them to one another. He even got to work with his children to write his obituary the way he wanted to be remembered.
This is not a morbid or dark film. Ondi Timoner wasn’t planning on making a movie about death. She just wanted to capture as much of her father and family as she could. So it becomes a very intimate and spiritual time—as such times are within families.
The spiritual aspect is inherent in discussions about death and what may be beyond. But in the film, this is boosted by the presence of Eli’s daughter Rachel, who is a rabbi. In what was, for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Rachel, who struggles to be in dual role of daughter and rabbi, leads her father through a ritual that allows him to release the feelings of guilt or shame that he has held onto through all his years and to forgive himself.
At the end of the film, we hear a bit of Rachel’s Yom Kippur sermon to her congregation. She makes use of that experience with her father to encourage her listeners to live in such a way that death’s reality opens them to the same kind of release and forgiveness each day.
The Timonen family has given us a great blessing by sharing themselves with the world in such a vulnerable and intimate setting. In many ways, Last Flight Home is Eli’s final gift that he had to share.