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Review: “3 Days 2 Nights,” a heart-wrenching tale of kids surviving a plane crash in the Colorado mountains

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A photograph taken by Dineen Godfrey of her husband, Bill, daughter Ellen, and sons Mark, Billy and Andy before their fateful flight from Houston to Aspen. (Provided by the Denver Film Festival)

3 stars: “3 Days 2 Nights,” unrated, 140 minutes

It was just after Andy Godfrey described hearing animal sounds near the downed plane in “3 Days 2 Nights” that the woman sitting next to me in the theater gasped and wiped her teary eyes.

When Godfrey said he realized the sounds were actually the death throes of his mother, who was lying nearby, I — and certainly others watching the film at the Sie FilmCenter during the Denver Film Festival — got emotional.

The documentary recounts the March 1974 crash of a private plane on Williams Peak near Glenwood Springs, in which four members of Godfrey’s family were killed: his father, Bill, mother, Dineen, and older siblings, Billy and Ellen. The pilot also died.

Andy, then 8, and his brother Mark, 11, survived. Mark was pinned in the wreckage, and would lose both legs from the knees down. Andy lost toes.

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“3 Days 2 Nights” is not just the story of the crash, which occurred as the family traveled from its home in Houston to Aspen for a ski vacation. It’s also about the brothers’ attempts to cope with the aftermath and confront their demons, more than 40 years later.

It took that long for Mark and Andy Godfrey to talk about the tragedy, to fully address the impact it had on their lives. It’s in “3 Days 2 Nights” that Mark thanks Andy for saving his life, that Andy apologizes to Mark for not being more understanding about Mark’s frustration over being unable to play the sports he loved.

The brothers lay out their personal struggles through a series of emotional interviews, interspersed with grainy Super 8 film clips of the intact family, overhead footage of snowy mountain terrain, plus audio snippets of laughing children and the drone of an airplane engine. It’s all hauntingly beautiful, and incredibly effective.

Scenes of the handsome family sailing and skiing together tug at heartstrings, and recall the robust joie de vivre of the cursed Kennedy clan. In a bit of foreshadowing, in an old clip, one of the Godfrey boys plays with a toy airplane.

The film opens with shots of Mark in the bedroom of his Denver home, strapping on his prostheses as he gets ready for a flight to Aspen. It’s where his brother lives, and where they both will relive the crash over the course of the documentary.

“I’ve waited my whole life to do this,” Mark says. “It’s time to put the pieces together.”

In Aspen, Mark and Andy — along with younger sister Paula, who was a baby and stayed behind in Houston when the accident occurred — talk with one of the rescue pilots, who takes them to the site of the crash. They locate fragments of the plane, hold hands, recite the Lord’s Prayer.

“I distinctly remember looking out the left-side plane window and seeing the trees get very close and Mom saying, ‘We’re going to crash,’ and I remember hitting the snow, remember sliding on the snow, and then blacking out,” Andy told the Aspen Times in September 2018.

“She told me to conserve the food, take care of Mark, and don’t leave the airplane,” he said in a Nov. 4 interview with CBS4.

From left: Director John Breen, Mark Godfrey, Andy Godfrey and Neil Truglio of the Denver Film Festival after a Nov. 2 showing of “3 Days 2 Nights” at the Sie FilmCenter. (Barbara Ellis, The Denver Post)

And the boys very nearly weren’t found. Nine-year-old Danny Schaefer witnessed the crash from the Sunlight ski area — but could get no one to believe him, thus delaying the search.

“Danny Schaefer was the key to our survival,” one of the brothers says as they head to Scottsdale, Ariz., to thank Schaefer.

We see photos of Mark and Andy in an Aspen hospital room, of John Denver by Mark’s bedside, and hear audio of Denver playing guitar and singing to them (and the boys even sing along) “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Rocky Mountain High” — which their father would sing to them before ski trips.

“I feel like my heart was ripped out of my chest that day,” Andy says, “and I’ve been looking for it ever since.”

The catalyst for the film was a 2012 article about the crash written by Andy and published in the Aspen Times. That got Mark to start talking about it, and caught the attention of director/producer John Breen, who is a longtime family friend of the Godfreys. (There’s even a photo of him in Mark Godfrey’s hospital room after the crash.) Breen suggested making a documentary of the tragedy with his brother-in-law, cinematographer Jojo Pennebaker.

Because of that connection, Breen is able to pull honest dialogue from the brothers with few instances of what could be perceived as emotional manipulation.

More details emerge: Mark would go on to be a champion skier with the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Andy and Mark’s uncle, U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker, would introduce the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1988.

In the final scenes of the documentary, 8mm film clips show the Godfrey brothers sailing decades before with their now-lost parents and siblings. Breen then shows grown-up Andy and Mark aboard a boat with their own families. The filmmaker overlays Mark’s tiny, 11-year-old voice singing out: “Sunshine, on my shoulders, makes me happy … .”

It’s enough to break your heart.

At the Sie, Breen and the Godfrey brothers took part in a Q&A with the audience as the credits rolled.

“I’m humbled by John’s vision each time I watch this film,” Mark said. “This story is about the frailty of life and the resilience of the human spirit.”

And about talking about your feelings. About tears.

“Being vulnerable, authentic and emotional,” said Andy, “should be the new sign of male strength going forward.”

(Editor’s note: While there are no more showings of “3 Days 2 Nights” currently planned in Denver, the film is still making the festival rounds and producers are hoping for a wider distribution, according to Neil Truglio of the Denver Film Festival.)

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