Beware the Sentimental In-Flight Movie

Flight: JFK to BCN
Carrier: Delta Air Lines
Time: 7 hrs., 15 min.
Price: $2,208
Miles: 3,819
Dollar per mile: $0.58
I arrived at my gate wracked by anxiety. I was charging to Spain on a one-night-only journey to watch the dazzling Barcelona Football Club. As any air-mile connoisseur can confirm, this kind of blitzkrieg mission requires a reservoir of stamina that can be guaranteed only by an unbroken night of slumber. Hence, business class. Yet since Ambien, the sophisticate's choice of sleeping aid, leaves me punch-drunk, I was banking on Delta's service to render me unconscious the old-school way—with a hearty meal, cinematic tranquilizer, and steady stream of Islay malts. I had planned on starting my mission in the Delta (DAL) business lounge, but the crusty bottle of crème de menthe on the courtesy bar appeared an empty promise.

Once inside the no-thrills cabin, I took my seat for the dramatic yet discomforting boarding ritual: the March of the Coach Class, in which economy passengers are herded through the business cabin into the bowels of the aircraft like refugees—and those of us in the premium seats are forced to look them dead in the eye. After the faux luxury of a moist towelette and cheap glass of champagne had been dispensed, I began to focus on the task at hand. I familiarized myself with my seat—a snug La-Z-Boy in the sky that invited extraordinary positional experimentation without granting true comfort.

Soon thereafter, the cabin crew—a trio of butch character actor look-alikes—appeared. Dinner was pure theater, to be served as if their whole lives had built up to this moment. I was an appreciative audience. On a plane, I feel oddly compelled to devour whatever is placed in front of me, since my travel gospel contradicts all modern medical evidence: "If it gives you heartburn, it will induce sleep." I barreled through a soupçon of tuna, a bowl of flavorless soup, and two servings of a rubbery beef fillet in a béarnaise sauce, prepared bloodied as if freshly gouged from a cow grazing on the verdant JFK plains between runways.

I turned to the in-flight entertainment for the final variable in my bedtime equation: a film guaranteed to bore me to sleep. This isn't a straightforward quest. Although a Netflix movie viewed at home puts me out of my misery within 20 minutes, like many men, I suffer from an odd yet little-discussed form of flight sickness: I'm reduced to tears by the combination of high altitude, a few Scotches, and standard Hollywood fare.

Identifying the perfect in-flight movie is a subtle art. While I find bloodshed or global threat to be a breeze, any hint of sentimentality (Billy Elliot), nostalgia (The Notebook), or regret (My Best Friend's Wedding) is verboten. A story line involving a parent-son relationship (The Blind Side) must be avoided at all costs, even if the only other option is to read SkyMall. Epic war movies (Troy) hit my sweet spot. On the tiny in-flight screen you can vaguely follow the overarching narrative without ever being certain of what is going on.

On this flight, Delta's offerings were an emotional minefield. Avatar: too risky. Eat Pray Love: no chance. Knight and Day: a Trojan horse. I opted for Lebanon, a grim Israeli war movie re-creating the 1982 invasion from the claustrophobic perspective of a tank crew. I figured it would be the most depressing movie I had watched in a long time, untarnished by that rom-com alchemy that summons my inner John Boehner. Perfect. With cabin lights dimmed, fluffy pillow uncovered from its plastic sheath, and Lilliputian leg rests at full recline, I called over the flight attendant for a nightcap. Then I slid the in-flight screen into my peripheral vision and prepared to arrive at my destination: Dreamland.

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