Fittingly for a film that acts in part as a soft, warmhearted US military recruitment campaign, Operation Christmas Drop arrives on Netflix with a great big target painted on its altruistic back.
Why, you might ask, might anyone want to target a film dedicated to celebrating the Christmas spirit, a film which takes all the warm and fuzzy elements of the season and celebrates them with nary an ironic eye?
Precisely because it is that type of film, a festive flick that dares to unashamedly advance the idea that life might be monochromatically, cruelly, inhumanely nasty much of the year, with 2020, pandemic and all, being a particularly slice of unbearable reality, but that Christmas, with its redeemed Scrooge-like power to change hearts and minds and love (and pour a tasty cup of eggnog into the bargain), is different.
Wholly, completely, stare down the odds different.
The temptation when faced with a film like this, even among the most happy ever after loving members of the population including this reviewer, is to roll the eyes just so, mutter “life just isn’t like that!” and move on to something feels a little more gritty and real.
This, of course, satisfies the cynical inner adult all of us acquire to some degree or another throughout the slings and arrows of this often unfortunate life, but it wholly ignore how good these kinds of films can be for the soul.
And Operation Christmas Drop, directed by Martin Wood to a script written by Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer, is unashamedly pitching itself at those of us, and we are legion especially after a year like this, who need to be reminded that life can be good and wonderful and kind, and that we can re-discover, after years of losing sight of them, of the very of us and of life in general.
One person who has never forgotten life’s capacity for infinite goodness is Andrew (Alexander Ludwig), a Captain in the US Air Force stationed at Andersen Air Force base in Guam, who gives up his Christmases every year to coordinate the titular mission to deliver all kinds of needed and necessary supplies to the people on over a hundred remote islands in Micronesia.
As people go, Andrew is one of the best, a good commander of his people, a dutiful, loving son with a cute, caring family and someone who happily gives up time at home each Christmas to give to people who need the help the US, Japanese and Australian military provides in an effort that began in 1951 and continues to this day.
That’s right; Operation Christmas Drop is an actual thing, the longest-running humanitarian airlift in the world, and the perfect raison d’être for a film set at Christmas one which, admittedly is full to the Santa hatted brim with cliche and well-worn trope and which, on one level at least, does little more than rearrange some already very well used Christmas narrative elements.
In one tight 95-minute film, we witness a Big Bad killer of good festive things in Congresswoman Bradford (Virginia Madsen) who is determined to close Andersen Air Force as a cost cutting measure, an act which will secure her career, consequences be damned.
To make this happen, she sends the second cliche of Christmas films, the hard-edged person in need of some tinsel and goodwill-softening in the form of Erica (Kat Graham), a congressional aide who is damn good at her job, so much so that she is constantly giving up time with friends and family to make sure the wheels of Bradford’s hard-edged keep turning without interruption.
You know the persona – all business and no fun, determined to do what she needs to do to advance her career and that of her boss and utterly impervious to any entreaty to the contrary?
But is she? Of course not? The moment she meets Andrew, as fine and wonderful a human being as you could ever hope to meet (element #3 in all its full, hunky, caring glory), you know, in a script that doesn’t even begin to contemplate screwing with a formulated that works, that element #4, redemption and love ever after, will make its life-changing presence by the end of the film where, by the way, all will be made well and the world will be happy and ready to deck the halls in a way it has not done in years.
(Thanks in part, for Erica at least, to the fact that her mother died three years earlier and she’s none too keen to celebrate with her dad and his, very nice thank you, new wife.)
So, yes, Operation Christmas Drop is as a cliched as it gets.
You know exactly where it’s goes to go and when and in a season where surprise is a central part of proceedings, everything is laid so well in advance you can almost time the inevitable kiss at the end between Andrew, who remains perfect beyond measure and Erica who has found her inner Christmas morning Scrooge and left her night-before version somewhere back on a desk in D.C.
But here’s the thing – unlike a slew of other Christmas films which feel like banal formula wrapped up in a bright red suit and shiny, colourful paper beneath the tree, Operation Christmas Drop is awash in some pretty genuine, heartfelt emotion.
Thanks in part to fully-committed performances by Ludwig and Graham, Operation Christmas Drop transcends its many cliched pieces, delightful as they are, to deliver up a film that warms the heart in a way you simply don’t see coming.
That’s largely because you think you are ready for the fact that this is just another join-the-dots, assemble-the-pieces festive movie only to find that while the constituent pieces are all present and accounted for, that the film has a beating heart so big that it’s damn impossible to escape it.
And honestly, unless you like lumps of coal instead of actual, fun presents, why would you even try?
Cynicism is easy, ridiculously easy but daring to let yourself surrender to the idea that life can be just and wonderful and good and that people can be redeemed and find their formerly good and festive self, is a lot harder.
If, like this reviewer who in the last year lost their mum to cancer and like many people endured the hell of COVID-19, you are in need of a film that unashamedly celebrates the most wonderful time of the year with gusto and a great big smile topped by a Santa hat of epic proportions, then Operation Christmas Drop is your happy slice of festive viewing, a delightful film that may not win any Oscars for originality or cutting-edge filmmaking but which is a joy from start to welcomingly obvious finish and which will, if you let it, remind you that life can be good and affirming and that good things can still happen if you let them.