Flight (2012) – Robert Zemeckis

A man wakes up in his hotel with a woman. He is hungover but begins to drink. His ex-wife calls him and they argue about their son. He hangs up in a huff and does some cocaine. Then he leaves the hotel and pilots a commercial airliner.
The man is Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and he’s an alcoholic. Much like a drunk, he will traverse the highs and lows in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2012) as the plane he’s piloting goes down because of a technical malfunction and with his skill he is able to miraculously land it, saving the lives of nearly everyone on board. He becomes a hero but the airline investigates the crash and discovers that Whitaker had both alcohol and drugs in his system. A hundred people lived through the crash but six weren’t as lucky; their families aren’t going to be impressed if they find out the pilot was drunk and high.

When Flight is good it’s riveting and when it’s in the plane or in the courtroom it’s very good. The crash is thrilling, meticulously paced and positively mesmerizing. When Whitaker boards the plane, he’s introduced to a young, straight-laced copilot Evans (Brian Geraghty), whose neatly combed hair and buttoned-down appearance is in stark contrast to Whitaker’s casual demeanor and his dark aviators that mask his impairment. They take off into turbulence, but Whitaker suggests and deploys a change in plan that will take them into smooth skies that Evans thinks is too risky. As the plane accelerates into increasingly choppy clouds, Evans squirms and we do too because we’re aware of Whitaker’s condition. Soon enough, however, the sky gives way to sunshine, and Zemeckis has aligned our trust with Whitaker and his experienced know-how. Later in the flight when the plane breaks down, Whitaker is cool and authoritative while Evans is paralyzed with fear. As the plane dizzyingly descends, Whitaker smoothly orders the crew to assist him, and his leadership gets the most out of them as they attempt to even the bird out by doing a barrel roll, a gambit that works well enough for Whitaker to avoid crashing into a subdivision and put the plane down in an open field.

Most action scenes in movies represent a slight distance between what’s happening on the screen and the psyches of the audience. I have never tried to escape a prison or fight an alien invasion, but I have flown in a commercial plane and at disquieting moments it does occur to me that something could go wrong with it. Flight, with its intense and exciting crash, plays with that fear, and in the exploration of Whitaker’s life that follows, introduces a new one: that the man at the wheel could be a drug addict.

Unfortunately, Zemeckis doesn’t invest half the energy into this section of the movie as he does in the crash scene. Whitaker’s personal life dominates the movie, but it represents only a fraction of interest. Washington’s performance is good, quite good, but it’s wasted on a script that wants to add too many elements. There are a couple of needless characters who practically have their purpose in the movie tattooed on their foreheads. One is the comic relief supplied by Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whitaker’s drug man and friend, and the other is the romantic interest provided by Nicole (Kelly Reilly), another addict who OD’ed and wound up in the same hospital as Whitaker. Both characters distract from what the movie is about.Flight really sizzles when it builds up to Whitaker’s hearing as part of the investigation. There’s a scene at a restaurant when Whitaker is introduced to the airline’s attorney Lang (Don Cheadle) that has nearly as much pop as the plane crash, and the hearing itself  has the tension of classic movie courtrooms but they take up far too little screen time and are pushed out of the way by melodramatic junk.

Having just seen Oslo, August 31stwhich quietly but powerfully tackled the subject of addiction, it was disappointing to watch a Hollywood movie fail so miserably to do the same. I won’t take away a thing from Washington, who gives us pain and pride like we’ve rarely seen, but the filmmaking undercuts him. The movie is overlong. When I see such films, during my autopsy, I think of them as a Jenga tower. The romance with Nicole is filler and obvious filler at that; it’s the first Jenga piece to go, because if it’s removed, nothing happens to the narrative except that it’s more focused.

Zemeckis famously used American pop tunes of the ’60s and ’70s to give his Forrest Gump (1994) the right flavor. He has a good soundtrack here, but it’s awfully literal, distractingly so. When a character walks out of a hotel room after snorting cocaine to Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright, you hardly notice. When a devious character is introduced by The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, you roll your eyes a little. By the time a character goes home to Gimme Shelter by the Stones and throws his booze away to Ain’t No Sunshine, it seems like John Gatins’ screenplay was co-written by TimeLife’s Sounds of the ’70s. This on-the-nose approach permeates the script. The filmmakers in Oslo, August 31st built a steady case to suggest why addicts return to their vices, but Flightsimply makes Whitaker relapse when it will most spice up the plot. Worse, the movie awkwardly tries inserting humor into Whitaker’s dependence, which confuses the tone and undercuts any seriousness it might have had.

Flight is a procedural; it finds its own rhythm when it’s teaching us something, whether that be about how planes work or how airlines and pilot unions respond during a crisis. I loved a scene when the executives at the airline try to determine how much money this crash is going to cost themit crackled with authenticity; it’s a shame it’s surrounded by hamfisted mush. Howard Hawks defined a good movie as three good scenes and no bad scenes, and that’s what makes Flight so frustrating. It’s has the good scenes, but plenty of bad ones too. 

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