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Flight (review)

Flight green light Denzel Washington

I’m “biast” (pro): love Denzel Washington; trailer thrilled me

I’m “biast” (con): Robert Zemeckis has an iffy track record recently

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)


I expect too much of Hollywood. I know it. I can’t help it. It’s because I loves me Teh Movies and I respect their power and I want all of them to be as amazing as they can possibly be. And sometimes a movie, well, you can just see from the get-go that it’s not going to be one of those amazing powerful profound movies that rock your world and keep rattling around in your head for days and weeks and ever. And you sigh over it but whaddaya gonna do? But then there are the movies that look like they’re promising to be precisely that incredible, but then they come to the moment of truth, when they have to choose between taking the road that’s dangerous and a little bit risky but down which lies greatness, or taking the road that is safe and comforting and doesn’t challenge the vast majority of people who don’t want to be challenged by it’s-just-a-movie.

I say fuck those people who don’t want to think about a it’s-just-a-movie and don’t want to be confronted about their assumptions in even the slightest way. Flight ends up saying, Fuck those people who want more than a nice risk-free complacent ending.

Okay, here’s the thing. It’s as if director Robert Zemeckis looked at the script for Cast Away — the last great movie he made; his A Christmas Carol and Beowulf are best forgotten — and said, “You know, wouldn’t it be better if Tom Hanks came home after being stranded for years and presumed dead and it turns out that Helen Hunt had been waiting and pining for him all that time and so they lived happily ever after?” No: that wouldn’t have been better. But that’s sorta the equivalent of what happens at the end of Flight. And it sucks. Sucks for us. Sucks for the movie.

Or maybe it doesn’t suck for the movie. Cuz hey: Oscar nominations! (Cast Away got Oscar noms, too, though. And it’s not like Cast Away is an obscure, inscrutable art film or anything. It’s just, you know, harder and more honest than this one. Dammit.)

That safe-or-dangerous moment of truth in Flight comes down to one literal moment, when the camera is close in on Denzel Washington’s face and his character has to make a decision: He will either say This or he’ll say That, and what he says won’t just determine his character’s fate but the fate of the film. And what he says and what follows from there relegates Flight to also-ran, thanks-for-playing, shiny-silver-star-for-effort second place.

See, Washington (Safe House, Unstoppable) — who is a god and completely deserves that Oscar nomination, don’t get me wrong, not his fault the script ultimately lets him down and ensures that he won’t, in fact, win that Oscar — is Whip Whitaker, hilariously perfectly monikered commercial airline pilot flyboy. He is not a nice man. He is not a likable man. But he is hugely intriguing (as a fictional character, at least). He is talented. He is smart. He is competent — more than competent, in fact. Because after a night of no sleep and lots of booze and god knows what sort of drugs and banging a flight attendant and a breakfast of beer and cocaine with a chaser of aspirin and coffee, he achieves a feat of aviation unparalleled in history. He “lands” an unlandable plane with a fatal engineering defect in what may be the most spectacular plane crash ever committed by cinema. (Cast Away is probably No 2. Is Zemeckis working out his fear of flying onscreen?) Flight will never be your in-flight movie… except John Gatins’ (Real Steel, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story) script had to have been inspired by that spectacular water landing on the Hudson River in New York a few years ago, the one that made everyone say, “I want Sully Sullenberger flying every plane I’m ever on.” It’s hard to come away from Flight and not think that Whip Whitaker is a better pilot hungover and drunk and high again than other pilots are stone-cold sober, and that you wouldn’t mind being on a plane piloted by this man.

I mean, the film makes a point of noting that, after the crash — in which a few people on the plane die but most survive — and during the inevitable NTSB investigation, no pilot in a simulator is able to land the plane the way Whip did, or at all. Whip saves the lives of almost a hundred people who would have died if anyone else — even sober — had been at the controls.

That’s a pretty shocking thing for a film to suggest, and it’s fairly provocative. It’s not that Flight is endorsing the use of intoxicants by airline pilots. It does, however, appear to be poking, and not kindly, at how our society enables abusers of drugs and alcohol, how easy we make it for abusers to be arrogant about getting away with their abuse. Alcohol is everywhere and relatively cheap, and cocaine and other similar substances may be illegal but they’re readily available, all of which we see via Whip’s use (including a couple of very funny yet somewhat discomfiting scenes featuring John Goodman [ParaNorman, Argo] as Whip’s neighbor and dealer). And we’re all complicit in and accepting of this reality — one small transitional scene, just before that Moment of Truth bit, takes place in an elevator where the muzak invites us to supply the lyrics: “I get by with a little help from my friends / I get high with a little help from my friends.” This is who we are: songs about recreational drug use are pleasant background noise.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! There’s a bleak humor to much of Flight that could be taken as a sly undercutting of American self-righteousness about drugs and alcohol. Right up until that Moment of Truth, it’s entirely possible that Flight is inviting us to lighten the fuck up about our attitudes, if not about the very real dangers of combining intoxicants with heavy machinery. (Although we do keep coming back to Whip as the Best Pilot Ever Even When High, which is, at a minimum, a disquieting challenge to us. Or else the most hugely irresponsible thing for a movie to have said, ever.) There’s a weirdly funny God motif running through Whip’s tale, too. His copilot (Brian Geraghty: The Hurt Locker, We Are Marshall) is in a position to sell Whip out, except he’s a born-again who thinks God saved him by putting him in Whip’s cockpit. The plane slices off a church steeple just before it crashes, for — er — Christ’s sake, and the first responders to the crash are people getting baptized in the pond outside the church. There’s an idea that God is good with arrogant drunken asshole Whip just the way he is. Whip’s saving of that plane was an “act of God”! That’s America’s Jesus-osity getting a bit of a smack.

Until it doesn’t. Until everything that has come before itself gets smacked away in a sappy melodramatic ending that, well, doesn’t quite kill the film — I’m still giving it a green light, after all — but does mean it ends up as something very conventional instead of something more difficult. I’m not looking for Flight to have been confounding. Just more complicated, and more realistic, and less pat and proud of itself. Did Gatins and Zemeckis not see where they could have gone? Or — and I fear this is the case — did they shy from it? If so, why?

UK
DVD/streaming

Amazon UK DVD
US/Canada release date: Nov 2 2012 | UK release date: Feb 1 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated PP for punches pulled
MPAA: rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language, sex references, nudity & drug & alcohol misuse)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • RogerBW

    Yes, I’m puzzled by this film not having the courage of its convictions. Surely if there had been interference someone would have seen the earlier script without that pat ending, and commented on it – so one has to assume that this is the story Zemeckis and Gatins wanted to tell.

  • Kate

    I totally agree with this review — it’s exactly what I thought after seeing the film. But . . . I think the ending DOES “kill the film.” I would not watch it again, and that’s saying something (I’ve probably seen CASTAWAY ten times, and totally because of the film’s ending).

    As to why Zemeckis chose to take the Hollywood route at the end of FLIGHT, I have to believe he just didn’t have the courage to take things to their logical conclusion. He was afraid of the message he would be sending should his drug-addicted boozer main character walk away from things without repenting (or without suffering). So he let his film suffer. Too bad, because I agree with Marianne that this could have been (and should have been) a really magnificent film.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    *SPOILER*

    The ending I kinda wanted to see was one in which it seems as if Whip gets away with it all, walks out of that NTSB hearing in the clear, but then gets some sort of comeuppance. Like he gets killed by a drunk driver while crossing the street. :->

    I’m actually looking forward to seeing the film again because I found *so* much good stuff before the ending.

  • ChrisBaron42

    The ending was pretty weak and that they didn’t quite follow through with the story like they should, but I still liked it. The performances were all really good and the CGI was spectacular, which was enough to make up for the story for me. I was talking to a coworker during my shift at DISH today who said that John Goodman’s character really made the movie for him, and I did love his scenes. I
    skipped this movie in theaters trying to save a little money, so I was really excited when I saw that I could get it through Blockbuster @Home from DISH. I don’t even miss the theaters because I can have my own premiere every couple of days in the comfort of my own home.

  • Kate

    I’m not sure the ending you suggest would have made the film much better, Marianne. It sort of reminds me of the ending Hollywood devised for the film version of THE BAD SEED (where lightning — i.e. God — strikes the little monster girl dead). The horror of the book (and the play) was in the girl’s triumph in the end (and in what we know will happen in the future).

    The ending I would have liked for FLIGHT would have had Whip getting away with it (it was just totally out of character for him to suddenly demonstrate a conscience there at that hearing, much less in prison), and then make a real mistake. The film as it is does suggest that drugs and booze can enhance someone’s ability to fly an airplane and make split second decisions (as in the episode of WKRP in CINCINNATI where Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap go head-to-head to prove that alcohol is dangerous — unfortunately, the more he drinks, the more clear-headed Johnny gets!).

    Whip is smug in his belief that he’s good enough (and lucky enough) to get away with the drugging and boozing. The film needs a moment when he discovers that isn’t true. His comeuppance (and I do agree he needs one) must come by his own hand. Let the next plane he ends up piloting go down, and let him realize as it’s happening that he’s the one to blame. The power of this film should lie in the horror of this man getting away with what he’s been doing. Because drugs and alcohol might make someone fearless, but they can’t make anyone more competent.

  • RogerBW

    Let the next plane he ends up piloting go down, and let him realize as it’s happening that he’s the one to blame.

    And that’s the closing shot – his face, while the disaster is still happening.

  • Beowulf

    Glenn Erickson (DVDSavant, at DVDTALK) also has a fine review of the film, making some of the same points and some different ones as well. It’s pretty heavy on the spoilers, but Glenn hits some winning shots–as always.

  • abro

    definitely shied away from it… at the cost of a great ending.

  • Kate

    Perfect!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Workhoven/1553839236 Mark Workhoven

    I agree with the view that the ending is too pat. I disagree that the film should have said that alcoholism is great and God condones it. Good grief, what an idiotic message that would have been!

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I disagree too! Who’s saying that, anyway?

  • Guest

    As a recovering alcoholic, I found this to be far and away the best representation of the the illness yet, and found the ending to be absolutely perfect. Niche market I know, but hey :-)

  • thomskis

    As a recovering alcoholic, I found this to be far and away the best representation of the the illness yet, and found the ending to be absolutely perfect. Niche market I know, but hey :)

  • AFC_Woody

    The perfect ending for me would have been equivalent to that in the great little Gael Garcia Bernal movie The King – he (spoiler alert) does go all the way, true to his character, and commits the final murders we fear. But then, horrified by himself, runs straight into the preacher’s office and blurts out “I want to get right with God!” – the last line of the film.

  • David O.

    I thought the ending was perfect and realistic. Did you miss the hangar “walk over” scene? In that scene, Whip already demonstrates that he won’t lie about Trina (and would rather go to jail). He becomes very angry that they want him to and accuses them of only wanting to save the union.

    At the end, they make Trina’s addictions the center of attention. Whip says “she saved the boy’s life” because he sees her as a good person that acted heroically and not someone that should be made a scapegoat. It’s the way he feels he’s been treated all along. Plus, it’s very normal for addicts to hate their addictions and somewhere, inside, want it to end (as Whip demonstrates early on). It’s freeing to be able to talk, even if it means getting caught.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I watched this for the first time and was moved to tears and still get choked up thinking about it today. Probably because I know too many people whose lives have been taken over by addiction, including myself: the druggie who becomes an absent, brain-addled father, the lawyer who could have done something great in politics who nearly killed himself popping pills, the food addict, the porn addicts, the internet addicts, the many, many people I’ve known and loved either personally or from afar who have died from overdosing.

    With Whip, it’s clear that despite his obnoxious arrogance and selfishness, he still has a moral code he refuses to comprimise. Too bad “the red line” was so limited that it hadn’t stopped him in his tracks decades earlier. Yet it was still there, and when he reached it, he stopped. And then he paid. I don’t know why there is a desire to see him die from his recklessness…we have no reason to believe he killed anybody because of it. All along he had laid his autonomy at the alter of addiction, in part to preserve his piloting lifestyle. It is fitting and enough that he loses the lifestyle and loses his freedom for a while. It doesn’t take much imagination to see him rueing the lost years with his son for the rest of his life, and, in effect, seeing that his recklessness–the drug abuse–and all–even if he is fortunate enough to stay sober– is a punishment that will keep on giving all his life.