Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cowardly Bravery: Robert Zemeckis' Flight

I have very mixed feelings about Robert Zemeckis' (Back to the Future, Cast Away) return to live-action film-making after 12 years away making his trilogy of motion-capture (mo-cap) films – The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Mixed feelings – not because I miss the fact he abandoned it for so long (although frankly, I never understood his obsession with mo-cap even though I'm one of the few people I know who actually likes his dead-eyed “village of the damned” movie The Polar Express) – because his return to live-action film-making is such a mixed bag.

In the first few seconds of his new movie, Flight, Zemeckis makes sure we understand that he's abandoning “cartoons,” and PG ratings of any sort. Denzel Washington plays “Whip” Whitacker, an airline pilot of many years and our first shot of him is as he awakens with a hangover. A buck-naked airline attendant rolls out of bed beside him and she heads to the washroom (you can hear her peeing in the background). His cell phone rings. He picks up and immediately begins an argument with his ex-wife. During the conversation, he drinks the remnants of a bottle of beer, and he liberally drops F-bombs left, right and centre. The airline attendant, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), returns from the loo, smokes the remainder of a joint and lets him know they are due at the airport within the hour to work on a flight from Orlando to Atlanta. He mumbles assent, does a line of cocaine and, with the soundtrack playing Joe Cocker’s cover of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” he dresses and heads to the airport: The confident cock of the walk.

We are barely four minutes into the film.

Robert Zemeckis on the set of Flight
On the airplane (after stumbling on the stairs), he greets Katerina, who's now in full 'professional' mode, and takes his seat in the captain's chair. He introduces himself to his co-pilot, a by-the-books God-fearing geek, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty). The weather outside is frightful, but Whip, filled with alcohol- and cocaine-fuelled bravado, is nonchalant. They take off and are immediately hit with hard and brutal turbulence. The co-pilot cautions, but Whip ignores him. He pulls a very dangerous manoeuvre to try to get the plane clear of the weather, a manoeuvre that I thought may have caused damage to the plane. And yet, his stunt finds clear sky and all seems well for this short, under-one-hour flight. He leaves his seat and goes into the passenger area to talk to the customers. (Isn't that disallowed post-9/11? No matter; just asking. It's just one of many questions that popped into my head watching this film.) As he talks to them, out of their range of vision, but shown in close up to us, he pours three miniatures of vodka into a bottle of orange juice.

It is now late in the flight. Whip is snoring away as the co-pilot mans the aircraft when a loud noise awakens Whip. The plane, at about 30,000 feet, suddenly pitches into an extreme nose-dive. What Whip does to save the plane and the passengers is down-right astonishing. (If you've seen the trailer, you know the one thing he does.) In the first twenty minutes, and during the crash, Washington has never been finer (and Zemeckis directs the crash and early scenes in the hotel room with equal brilliance). Whip’s calm in the face of catastrophe is completely believable, and only we know he's probably higher than a kite and drunk as a skunk when he does it. He manages to bring the airplane down with minimal loss of life. He is cheered as a hero because (as is revealed much later in the film) 11 talented pilots could not successfully recreate what he did in a simulator (in fact, they all “crashed” killing all aboard). Then the big Ah HA! occurs. As part of procedure after any air accident, all crew (living or dead) are routinely checked for alcohol or drugs. Whip was found to be about four to five times over the legal limit, and so is the now-dead Katerina.

The rest of the film examines Washington as an alcoholic and drug addict who's in denial. His life is one big dodge as he tries to avoid responsibility for everything. His fall-back line is always, “I saved all those people, didn't I?” Of course he did, but what hangs over him is the alcohol test. What also hangs over him is his clear addiction. For the first thirty minutes, right up until Whip's released from hospital, Zemeckis demonstrates he hasn't lost his touch directing people even though he's been directing pixels for 10 years. The cast is uniformly strong, with Kelly Reilly (Jude Law's wife in the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films) playing not only a pretty credible American (she's British), but also a needy, desperate drug addict and alcoholic who gets involved with Washington during the film. The sequences of them enabling each other are generally quite effective. Don Cheadle as the lawyer brought in to defend Whip (Whip's facing criminal negligence charges for being drunk during the crash) is outstanding. The last time Cheadle and Washington appeared on screen together was in Carl Franklin's great Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). In that film, Cheadle played Mouse, the psychopathic best friend to Washington's Easy Rawlins. Here, demonstrating his immense range, he plays a button-down lawyer who is doing whatever he can to keep Whip out of prison. It's a great, 'straight man' performance. Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU) is wonderful as the more-seasoned flight attendant on the plane who has several very good scenes with Washington, none more so than the one at a funeral home. Bruce Greenwood, as Whip's friend and union rep is, as always, strong.

John Goodman as Harlan
In fact, the only terrible performance in the film is John Goodman as Harlan. He plays a sort of outlandish, old, long-haired hipster drug dealer who, in two sequences, supplies Whip with whatever he needs. The aged hipster schtick is just that: schtick. He makes you cringe whenever he appears. And it doesn't help that both times Goodman appears The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” comes streaming onto the soundtrack.

And speaking of music, that's one of the film's failings. Zemeckis decided that Flight should be peppered with Motown and other songs from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On”, Bill Wither’s “Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone,” Lou Reed's (performed by The Cowboy Junkies) “Sweet Jane,” etc., to comment on several scenes in the picture. But, unlike the use of “Moon”- titled songs in John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), such as The Marcels' “Blue Moon” and  Van Morrison's “Moondance,” which were utilized to very good comic effect, here the songs are so on-the-nose that their use gives you no room to think. “Feelin’ Alright’ at the very beginning imaginatively underscores Whip's fake confidence; throughout the rest of the picture these songs (including a Muzak version of The Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends” near the end) basically tell you what to think.

Spoilers Follow

But the film's most basic problem is the seen-it-a-thousand-times drunk-who-finds-a-way-to-redeem-himself scenario. You keep waiting and waiting for his moment of “big revelation” and, of course, we are not disappointed. If that is where all these films like Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Lost Weekend (1945), etc., are leading to, why was this one even made? Flight doesn't really add anything new to this well-worn plot. If it had been really brave, this is what should have happened: Throughout the picture, the film makes us not-so-subtly aware that pie-eyed, Whip was able to save the lives of most of the passengers on a “broken” airplane. (The media continues to pursue him and portray him as a hero. But another thought kept popping into my head: Isn't there one reporter who manages to discover he was drunk? But no.) Left unspoken is the tired idea of a gifted man who has wasted his gifts. Just think what he could have done if he'd not become a drunk? When he took reckless action during the turbulence, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept expecting someone, somewhere to uncover that Whip's recklessness earlier in the flight actually broke something that led, inevitably to the plane malfunctioning and crashing later. But no, again. The script by unknown-to-me John Gatins (Real Steel) was too caught up in the notion of fate. The crash was an act of God. Whip saving the plane was an act of God. Whip finally seeing the light is an act of God. This horse-feathers plot point – which is hammered home almost as hard as the way the songs are used – would have been seriously derailed (please forgive the mixed metaphor) if it turned out Whip's recklessness at the start had caused the plane to break, so that even though he saved many many lives, he was still responsible for the crash. There is no way in a mainstream Hollywood film with Denzel in the lead that they were going to go anywhere near something that layered. Flight is about a man being redeemed...period. Too bad about the six people he killed so he could get there, but oh yeah, he saved 96 other people. The last film about a drunk that dared to take its premise to its only logical conclusion was Mike Figgis’s terrific Nicolas Cage-on-a-bender picture, Leaving Las Vegas (1995). But, in Flight, redemption is the only goal. The movie lets both its protagonist and the audience off the hook. This is not the kind of picture that would hold Whip accountable for the true cause of the crash. That would be too brave  a bravery that is missing in far too many pictures today. 

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and Its Eye.

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