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?

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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