Column: In HBO’s new docuseries ‘The Invisible Pilot,’ truth gets the fiction treatment

Before you commit to watching “The Invisible Pilot,” HBO’s new documentary series about the eventful life and strange disappearance of pilot Gary Betzner, consider the words of former Arkansas sheriff Mike Grady.

“I don’t think he deserves to have a movie made about him,” Grady says.

Having watched the three-episode series in its entirety, I can’t say that I agree with Grady. But I don’t entirely disagree, either. One thing I can say after spending nearly three hours with this story is that to know even a little something about Betzner is to have mixed feelings about him. The same goes for the series.

As told by directors Phil Lott and Ari Mark (“Murder in the Heartland,” “Cold Case Files”), the basic story it this: In September of 1977, Betzner — daredevil crop-duster and small-town family man — was on a drive with his wife and one of his daughters when he stopped his El Camino in the middle of a bridge in Hazen, Ark., got out of the car and jumped.

He left behind a wife, an ex-wife, three children, and many questions. Why would a man who seemed to have an outsized appreciation for life decide to end it all so suddenly? How could this devoted husband and father abandon his family like that? And why weren’t authorities ever able to make sense of what happened?

Lott and Mark get to Betzner’s fateful act within the first few minutes of “The Invisible Pilot.” They spend the remaining hours telling a chaotic, character-stuffed story that careens from the mellow ’70s into the overstimulated ’80s, vaults from the idyllic beaches of Hawaii to a suspicious ranch in Costa Rica, and zips through decades’-worth of interviews. with the blurring speed of a blackjack dealer.

If you choose to follow along, prepare for a main character who turns out to be a real piece of work, along with an emotional journey that will have you feeling intrigued, irritated, outraged and a little sad.

Also a little played.

Like many series that aim to turn true-life crimes, disasters and hoaxes into binge-worthy narratives that can spin out over multiple episodes, “The Invisible Pilot” requires a suspension of both your disbelief and your search-engine privileges. If you don’t mind a series that is cagey about timelines and creative about its truth-telling, the story of what happened after Betzner stopped his car midspan turns out to be bigger and more compelling than its Hazen, Ark. roots would suggest.

Through a flurry of interviews and some generic re-enactments, we are introduced to Betzner’s life before September of 1977. There was the volatile father, whose abuse turned Betzner into a defiant rebel. There was the 1969 meeting with his second wife, Sally, a lightning-bolt moment that was only slightly dimmed by the fact that Betzner had come to the party with his very-pregnant first wife, Claudia.

Betzner divorced Claudia shortly after daughter Polly was born. He married Sally, and they had two children, daughter Sara Lee and son Travis.

Betzner’s family responsibilities put a damper on his dreams of ditching Hazen for brighter lights and bigger opportunities, so he made do with the envelope-pushing thrills of flying a crop-dusting plane and, later, smoking pot. And later than that, indulging other substances.

It’s the other substances that led to the moment on the bridge, which turns out to be just the beginning of many dramas to come.

Is it enough drama for three episodes? Sometimes. As “The Invisible Pilot” moves from backwater Arkansas to the hippies and gurus of ’70s California to the drug-crazed Miami of the ’80s, Lott and Mark cram in so many vivid characters and bonkers details — Hypnosis! gurus! Cocaine everywhere! — that it’s easy to overlook how much padding there really is.

All of those drug-fueled exploits and spy-novel machinations are entertaining enough, particularly when the always-quotable Sally is doing the telling. But you can also feel the directors filling time so they can keep the story going until it makes its way to a much bigger stage.

It’s at this point where you can feel the presence of “Don’t Look Up” and “The Big Short” director Adam McKay, who is an executive producer on the series. As Betzner’s story collides with a current-events firestorm (I won’t tell you which one), “The Invisible Pilot” moves into the kind of politics-meets-pop-culture narrative that McKay spins so expertly.

With the welcome help of some particularly articulate experts, the focus widens to include a smart, pointed explanation of one of the most complicated and galling scandals in modern political history. The series could have gotten to it sooner, but once its eye settles on this prize, you can see why that long-ago night on the bridge kickstarted an HBO doc.

But there are other ramifications of that night that “The Invisible Pilot” does not explore as thoroughly as it should have.

After the loss of their father, Betzner’s children were left with a hole in their lives that they were never able to fill. There were secrets they had to keep, lies they had to tell and complicated situations that had to be navigated without anything resembling a map.

These wounded adults are casualties of their father’s war against convention, rules and responsibility. And while the series lets the adult Polly, Sara Lee and Travis process some of their pain and trauma, what little accountability there is comes very late.

“It’s all about Gary,” Sally says at one point, but it’s not clear she fully understands what that means to the kids he left behind. Maybe that’s not a scandal, but it is a tragedy.

“The Invisible Pilot” premieres April 4 at 9 pm on HBO and streams on HBO Max.

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