The Invisible Pilot, HBO’s Adam McKay-produced three-hour docu-series, defies easy classification. It’s part small-town mystery, following the suspicious death of a local crop duster in Hazen, Arkansas, in 1977. It’s part thorny family history, following the ex-wives and children left to grapple with such a foundational, traumatic event. It’s part true crime, as the mystery ropes in drug smugglers, the 80s cocaine trade in Miami, and illegal US weapon deals as part of the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra scandal. And it’s yet another iteration of our evergreen fascination with scams, as the central mystery played out in the first episode – why Gary Betzner, a 36-year-old married father of three, jumped off a bridge while taking his wife and daughter for sundaes in 1977 – is not what it seems.
As the first episode aired on Monday (the remaining two will air on HBO weekly), I can say – spoiler alert! – that Gary Betzner did not die in the jump off the Arkansas bridge. In fact, he didn’t jump into the White River at all; a friend took Gary in a pickup truck to Texarkana, where he picked up a motorcycle and drove off to California as a fugitive. Facing up to 20 years in prison on federal drug charges for smuggling marijuana and cocaine in Florida, and another drug possession charge in Arkansas (Gary says he self-medicated gout with cocaine), he and his wife, Sally, staged the suicide (with the help of hypnosis, if you can believe it). Their two young children, Travis and Sara Lee, didn’t know their dad survived. Neither did his first wife and his eldest daughter, Polly, who were never privy to the plan.
The twist arrives halfway through the first episode, which until that point plays out as a standard small-town true crime mystery featuring interviews with Sally, Travis, Sara Lee and Polly over several years, from 2009 onwards. And then Gary appears – very much alive, with hangdog charm and a glint of pride, as the main narrator of a bizarre story from small-town Arkansas crop duster to expert cocaine smuggler for Pablo Escobar to incarcerated White House whistleblower.
The shocking first episode twist – I, like apparently most of Hazen in the early 80s, believed Gary died in 1977 – was an intentional bait-and-switch to “play with the audience’s expectations”, said Ari Mark, who co-directed the series with Phil Lott. “If you’re not invested in the disappearance of this guy, then we’re not going to be able to get you past that point to be able to start asking more questions about his smuggling of him” and involvement in the Iran-contra scandal. “The hoax is just the tip of the iceberg, but then it’s the ultimate hoax from a more political level,” he added. The faux death “has a reason, and it’s not just to confuse you and it’s not just to throw you to the left so we can bring you back to the right. Hopefully, you get some trust from the audience there, because it’s not us doing it. It’s actually what happened.”
The series, over the course of three hours, aims to explore deception at the highest level – the “war on drugs” Reagan administration’s use of drug smugglers for foreign policy influence – and on the most personal level, as interviews with the Betzner family conducted over 12 years evince the toll of Gary’s Don Draper-esque charade. “People don’t disappear into thin air,” said Mark. “And people have families who care about them, and when somebody disappears, they leave a void. How is that possible?”
The stranger-than-fiction story came to Mark and Lott more than a decade ago. Lott was attending the Sonoma film festival and met a screenwriter, Jon Crawford, who was writing a fictional account of the story. Crawford put a stunned Lott in touch with Craig Hodges, a childhood friend of Travis Betzner who had been filming Travis and his family on and off for years as part of his own documentary project. Hodges, an executive producer on The Invisible Pilot and on-screen presence (he shows off a room with boxes on boxes of research, dating back to when Travis first told him of his father’s death in middle school), provided the HBO team with footage of parallel interviews conducted over several years, woven into and echoed throughout their own filming.
Working with Hodges’s original interviews and reporting, Mark and Lott re-reported, filmed and factchecked a full timeline of Gary Betzner’s double life – his brief was as a California hippy, near-decade as a prolific cocaine smuggler, and the long shadow his deceptions cast over the family. “We organized this story in a way that I think connects all the dots for the first time in everyone’s heads,” said Lott.
The goal was to “make the audience feel like they’re a part of that journey,” said Mark, “and make them feel like they’re going from A to Z with Gary, and really defy expectations along the way”.
Each episode of The Invisible Pilot leans into different documentary subgenres, with attendant tone shifts. The first is more cold case file, with a serious focus on the memories of each family member, consistent across a decade of interviews edited together. The second is a more rolling ride through the Miami Vice era of drug smuggling over the Caribbean. The third skews educational, with explainers on Iran-contra from the journalist and Slow Burn podcast host Leon Neyfakh, and plenty of archival footage of Washington in the 1980s. (Very briefly, as it is confusing: the US government secretly sold weapons to Iran, breaking an embargo at the time, purportedly with the intention to help coax the Iranian government to release American hostages. The proceeds secretly funded contra guerrillas fighting the leftwing government in Nicaragua; the CIA covertly used drug smugglers such as Gary Betzner to deliver weapons amid their smuggling routes.)
The genre-bending mashups are partly thanks to Adam McKay, director of Don’t Look Up and executive producer of Succession, whose company Hyperobject Industries signed on as an executive producer of the series. The partnership “helped us solidify tone”, said Mark. “We can go a little quirky, we can go a little dark. We can go a little heavy into character. That combination helped a lot to solidify what the DNA of the show is.”
“If we had to think of a film-maker who would make this film, it would be Adam McKay,” said Lott.
Similarly difficult to clearly define are Gary’s political views, which morph over the course of his story from anti-government (specifically, anti-drug enforcement) to patriotic and settles somewhere around libertarian. “You keep wanting to pin it down,” said Mark. “You keep wanting to be like, ‘well, what’s your political statement? What are you saying?’ And at the end of the day, I think it’s pretty elusive.”
But regardless of Gary’s views on his past decisions, Mark finds something “quintessentially American” about the story of an Arkansas crop duster and expert pilot who starts over as a drug smuggler, makes millions and then loses it, and reinvents himself again as a truth -telling whistleblower to Congress. “There’s something just innately patriotic about that idea, about ‘I’m an American male, and I can do whatever the hell I want,’” said Mark. “Hate it or love it, I think it’s a real thing that’s wrapped up in American identity.”
The Invisible Pilot fashions Gary as somewhat of a real-life prestige TV antihero, one who hurts those closest to him – Sally and Polly are particularly eloquent on this – but penetrates the shadowy upper echelons of American government. “I hope that feels bizarrely aspirational,” said Mark. “If this could be Forrest Gump meets American Made meets All the President’s Men, we’ve done our job.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism