Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a daze. A beautiful, very naked, woman (Nadine Velazquez) paces the room while he tries to get himself together. His wife calls looking for money to send their son to a private school. He takes a few drinks to steady himself, but can’t really get there. Uh oh, he’s got to fly a plane in less than two hours. *Snort* He’s Feelin’ Alright. Once on the plane, however, things go very wrong and Whip pilots the plane to relative safety through exceptional skill. However, when an investigation begins into what happened on that plane, Whip’s personal problems compound on themselves requiring the assistance of a beautiful drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), his slightly insane buddy Harling (John Goodman), union rep (and friend) Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), and morally ambiguous attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle).
Flight (2012) is Martin Scorsese in reverse. We begin with a hard-hitting, ambiguous film infused with The Rolling Stones and ended with a PSA on addiction accompanied by James Horner. Now I see why. John Gatins, the writer, also wrote Hard Ball (2001), Coach Carter (2005), Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005), and Real Steel (2011). He’s been programmed. But for two hours, he had himself a movie. And they squandered it. It wasn’t that every part of the end was without merit the last line really had something there, but it wasn’t enough to save it.
Why do they hate us? They hate us for our intelligence. That is the only answer I can come up with to explain the state of screenwriting in this day and age. At one point in the film, Whip is going before a panel of judges and someone is giving him advice to which Whip replies, “Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking.” Great line. “I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.” Terrible, unnecessary, literal. Where is the art in it? The second line was already stated in the first line. It’s patronizing, that’s what it is. And that’s why it upsets me so much.
But credit where credit is due and that will lie mostly with the performances. There was a danger there that Washington was going to implode in self-parody of his Training Day (2001) performance, especially after Unstoppable (2010), but he’s back to form in Flight. Reilly, Goodman, Greenwood, and Cheadle are all quite good in their function as well, but this is Denzel’s show. I’d like to point out Avington Carr (Peter Gerety) as an absolutely stellar character and played brilliantly. He only gets one scene and that’s a major disappointment. The performances weren’t uniformly great. They gave the co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) a Bible-thumping wife who interjects with “Praise Jesus!” at regular intervals that are inappropriately comic.
There are two themes in this movie. God and his will and addiction. The obviously missing theme in this movie is fame and celebrity. There’s simply no room for it. Whip isn’t an addict because of the pressures of fame, he’s an addict well before that for very traditional reasons. Ultimately, that feels like a mistake. The film revolves around a moment of extreme danger with a miraculous resolution. A man averts a plane crash in a way no one else ever could. They juxtapose this with his ordinary personal problems that cause extreme tension because of his public scrutiny. But that tension would exist in a custody battle, an attempt to find a job, or any other kind of highly emotional context. The plane crash is so out there, out of normal life, and yet is immaterial to the story.
We’re too far along in Whip’s addiction. He’s already doing hard drugs and taking drinks in the morning to steady himself. A cleaner narrative would begin with a marriage on the rocks, a predilection towards drink, he cheats on his wife the morning of the flight and does some coke to get himself straight, then the plane crash, and the public pressures lead him towards the absolute wreck he eventually becomes. He is the plane, something is broken, he crashes, and, through the grace of God, he comes to a mostly positive end. This is the metaphor the film already attempts, but he had crashed a long time ago.
Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis who has finally returned from his misadventures in animation. As I mentioned earlier, this movie channels Scorsese to the level of plagiarism. Sure, we can all use classic rock, that’s true. But getting high and walking slowly down a hallway to, alternately Feelin’ Alright, Gimme Shelter, and Sympathy for the Devil? Quick zoom on a character as she shoots heroin? Even the themes of God and addiction are right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse. The problem is that Zemeckis isn’t Scorsese. He doesn’t know how to use the music. He never lets the song play out or taper off, he just cuts it in the middle of a musical phrase. Ludicrous. All it does is make me think, “Man, this would have been the best movie of the year if Scorsese got his hands on it.” Scorsese would have ironed out that ending beautifully.
All in all, though, this was a very sound film worthy of a rental. If there was any Oscar buzz, though, that was extinguished. Even Washington, who was grand, didn’t give the kinds of moments that are required for Best Actor–go see The Master (2012) and watch Joaquin Phoenix slap himself in the face three times and you’ll know what I mean.