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“Fly Old Bird: Escape to the Ark”: Two Reviews | Righting America

by Caitlin Cipolla-McCulloch and Laura Tringali

Poster for the movie, Fly Old Bird: Escape to the Ark. Image via thefilmcatalogue.com.

Below are two reviews of Fly Old Bird: Escape to the Ark, a film which, as one of our reviewers points out, is “essentially a long-form advertisement for Ark Encounter.” To put it succinctly, Caitlin and Laura watched this film so you don’t have to.

Caitlin Cipolla-McCulloch is a doctoral candidate at the University of Dayton. Her research interests include Mariology, Latin American studies, and ways of building theological bridges across divides. She is keen to learn from others about how we can find common ground and speak to each other amid challenging situations. Laura is a trusted friend and colleague whose research interests diverge from her own, but who in her Catholicity shares a common bond with Caitlin. 

Fly Old Bird shows up on the cinema scene at the same time as blockbusters such as Queen Bees. Though both Fly Old Bird and Queen Bees are films about challenges that come with moving into nursing homes, Fly Old Bird has a predictable and pedantic style which at times makes it difficult to watch.

The film is about two men who live in a trailer park in Michigan. Jon Koski, a pre-dementia 69-year-old man, is befriended by Miller Gibbs, a Christian. Jon, upset about his children’s desire to move him to a nursing home, decides he will travel to Ark Encounter. Gibbs, a man who has read the Bible through fourteen different times, and who has a deep desire to visit the Ark, decides to join Jon for the journey. 

After a visit to Jon’s wife, buried in a local cemetery, Jon and Gibbs begin their flight to the Ark. What is fascinating as this film opens is that, while Gibbs exhibits signs of being a Christian who is very concerned with doing the right thing in fidelity to the Bible, he goes along with most of Jon’s antics without much conflict or confrontation, even at times enabling the journey. Gibbs does, however, point out to Jon how his kids seem to be correct about his dementia. While on the journey, Gibbs shares his evangelical Christian beliefs with Jon. They even make a stop at Gibbs’ church, where they receive brochures for the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum from the pastor. At this point, we deeply understand that this film is an evangelical tool designed to support and promote the Ark Encounter project.

It becomes clear that the film has been put together to share the message about the importance of making what Catholics might call a pilgrimage to the Ark and the Creation Museum. My concerns about this are multifaceted. Fly Old Bird attempts to capture the complexity of the challenges of aging, including Jon’s desire to push against the move to nursing care, while also seeking to portray the complications that occur in a family trying to support aging family members. Despite the fact that Jon’s children care for him, and want him to be taken care of a nursing facility due to his dementia, the message of this film supports Jon’s desire to go against his children’s wishes by traveling to the Ark.  This would seem to distort the film’s evangelical message. 

This movie, whose soundtrack engages the genre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), has several plot developments. While on their journey, Gibbs has a heart attack, and Jon pulls onto the grass of a church, where Gibbs dies. At this point in the film, there is a bit of a confusing jump to Jon’s life in the nursing home, with a cut to Jon praying in the chapel, with Genesis 7, about Noah’s Ark. It seems Jon is seeking his “Answers in Genesis.” During this scene, his son enters the chapel space and provides Jon the opportunity to “escape” from the memory care unit. Jon sneaks out and steals a car from the nursing home’s parking lot to attend the wake of his friend Gibbs at the funeral home. Jon then steals Gibbs’ ashes from the funeral home and begins the journey south to the Ark.

Again, I find the emphasis on the Christian message confusing, due to the amount of theft required to make this pilgrimage to the Ark. This film’s message seems to be the Ark or else. Perhaps they should have painted “Ark or Bust” on the windows of the various stolen or borrowed vehicles, in case viewers needed more clues about the film’s main message. 

Laura Tringali is a PhD student at the University of Dayton. Her research interests include reception history, feminist theology, and the intersection of religion, gender, and culture in U.S. history. Caitlin is a trusted friend and colleague whose style and research interests differ from Laura’s, but who in her Catholicity shares a common bond with Caitlin.

Fly Old Bird: Escape to the Ark is the story of 69-year-old Jon Koski (Alan Maki) who is on the run for his freedom. The film was written by Alan Maki and directed by his son Shaun Maki. Shaun Maki also owns the production company Sun and Paw, LLC that developed the film. Fly Old Bird is the third Christian film that Alan Maki has written, produced, and starred in. According to Rosemary K. Otzman of the Belleville-Area Independent, the Michigan newspaper local to the town where Alan Maki graduated from high school, Fly Old Bird won Best Script in West Virginia’s CARE Awards Film Festival.

Koski has been showing signs of dementia, and his children, his daughter Katherine (Alison Flaig) in particular, want him to move into a nursing home with a memory care unit. None of the interactions or circumstances in this film arise organically or sound authentic. Inorganic and inauthentic is the only way to describe the way that Koski and his neighbor Miller Gibbs (Dennis McComas) meet for the first time while Koski is in crisis over the conflict with his children. The strange relationship between Koski and Gibbs drives the rest of the plot.

As Koski and Gibbs get to know each other, Koski learns that Gibbs is a Christian by seeing a Bible on a table inside Gibbs’s home. Much of the Christian message of the film is explicit in the dialogue. For example, Koski picks up the Bible and asks, “What are you, a bible-thumper, too?” Gibbs retorts, “Does that offend you?” To which Koski replies, “As long as you don’t hit me over the head with it” (00:16:23). Under zero layers of subtlety, the audience is meant to see that Christians are persecuted by the judgments and misunderstandings of their faith. In this conversation, Gibbs reveals that he hopes to go to the Ark Encounter one day. The Ark Encounter is presented as a pilgrimage site of sorts for Gibbs. For Koski, the audience is given no reason for his latching onto the destination except that it fits his need to escape to “anywhere-but-here.”

Koski gets the idea that he and Gibbs should take a road trip to the Ark Encounter from where, he later reveals, he intends to hop a train to escape his kids’ plan to move him into a nursing home for good. Gibbs brings his Bible on the trip “to find direction,” he explains (00:30:12). The idea that the Bible will provide direction for their trip never comes back. However, Gibbs continues to state his Christian beliefs as matter-of-fact in this same manner. For example, Koski and Gibbs stop at the cemetery on their way out of town for Koski to say goodbye to his wife. Gibbs says, “It’s just her body, not her soul.” Koski asks, “Is that religious talk?” Gibbs replies, “It’s just a fact. … The Bible tells me so,” as he points upward (00:36:18).

The duo continue making stops along their trip. The next stop is to swap license plates with another car so that the police will not be able to find them when Koski’s kids inevitably report him missing. For the record, this is a crime. Though Gibbs comments on his discomfort with the crime, he is ultimately content to be complicit. The commandment is “thou shall not steal,” not “thou shall not be an accessory to theft” so, I guess, he is in the clear.

Over lunch at a subsequent stop, we find out that Gibbs has heart problems so serious he feels he is living on borrowed time. Koski asks if the medication Gibbs is taking saved his life. Gibbs replies, “No Jesus did, but that pill helps” (01:31:55). This foreshadowing pays off less than ten minutes later when Gibbs has a heart attack and dies.

At this point, there is a time jump. Koski is living in a nursing home, and we find out that Gibbs’s funeral service will take place later that day. To emphasize Koski’s feeling of being trapped, he is not permitted to leave the facility to attend the service. With the help of his son, who visits him and gives him the door code to exit the building, Koski flees from the nursing home. As we have already seen, Koski is not afraid to steal. He not only steals a car from the nursing home parking lot, he also goes to the funeral home and steals Gibbs’s urn and hat. Koski is off, once again, to take Gibbs to the Ark Encounter and then hop a train to his freedom. 

At a rest stop, Koski is aware, as he was on his first trip, that the police may pursue him. He approaches a young man named Kyle, perhaps just eighteen years old, and asks him for a ride to the Ark Encounter. We find out that Kyle grew up in a church, so he is familiar with the Ark Encounter and is amenable to the idea that this strange encounter might be a “God thing,” to use his words. Kyle takes Koski to the Ark Encounter and pays for his ticket.

Nothing profound seems to happen for Koski at the Ark Encounter besides the satisfaction that he succeeded, in a way, in completing his trip with Gibbs. He sits inside the exhibit and opens Gibbs’s notebook to read a list of things Gibbs wanted to do. He crosses off “find a new best friend” and “visit the Ark Encounter.” “Go to heaven” is also on his list. For both Gibbs and Koski, the Ark Encounter is the gateway to freedom. We are meant to have a sense of peace that Gibbs is now in heaven after making it to the Ark Encounter. Likewise, Koski achieves his freedom by hopping a train after leaving the Ark.

Making it to the Ark Encounter is the climax. Nothing in particular happens there, nor is there any significant point of character development for Koski. Fly Old Bird is essentially a long-form advertisement for the Ark Encounter. For a Christian film that has clear dialogue and plot points directed toward evangelizing Koski, it is surprising that he never has an explicit conversion experience. He makes it to the Ark Encounter with Gibbs’s urn, and then the old bird flies, hopping a train like he intended from the outset of the initial road trip. The audience is left without closure as we watch a criminal, who is perhaps a good friend by some distorted standard I am sure we could imagine, ride off on the back of a train, in the process evading both law enforcement and any continued relationship with his children.