Another Friday is upon us, and the supply of good new releases has gone back from “ebb” to “flow.” Three wide releases hit multiplexes today, all of which looked very interesting. Purely by luck of the draw, I’ll be starting this weekend with a look at Flight, which marks Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film in well over a decade. The film also stars Denzel Washington in what’s clearly an Oscar-bait role, which was itself very promising. After all, Washington is known for consistently delivering powerhouse performances in everything he does, even when the rest of the film is mediocre.
Sure enough, Flight is indeed a mediocre movie that just happens to feature powerhouse performances.
Let’s take it from the top. This is the story of William “Whip” Whitman, a Navy veteran who’s presently an airline captain. We first meet the guy hung over, surrounded by empty liquor containers, in bed with a naked woman, mere moments before he wakes up to do a couple lines of coke. And then he goes off to fly a plane from Orlando to Atlanta with 102 souls on board.
Let’s start with the obvious: Would you put your life in this guy’s hands? Would you climb aboard a plane if you knew this guy was flying it? Personally, I would take my chances with whatever maniacs were riding the next Greyhound.
Secondly, remember that naked woman Whip was waking up next to? Yeah, she’s one of the flight attendants on board (Katerina Marquez, played by Nadine Velasquez). Leaving aside the possible ethics violations, this means that there is somebody on that plane who knows for a fact that the pilot is too shitfaced to drive a car, much less an airplane. And she never says a word about it. She doesn’t even think to lock up the liquor cabinet so Whip can’t help himself to it during the flight (which, by the way, he totally does).
So after a takeoff in stormy weather that damn near crashes the plane at the start, an equipment failure forces the plane into a nosedive. Through sheer dumb luck, incredible instinct, and whatever else you might want to credit, Whip miraculously manages to land the plane in relative safety, with only six lives lost on board.
Let’s take a moment to recap. 1) The pilot was visibly intoxicated. 2) There was a crew member on board who knew from firsthand knowledge that the pilot was intoxicated. 3) The weather was so bad that it caused phenomenally bad turbulence during take-off. 4) The plane was FUBAR from the very start, and — we later learn — failed an inspection at the start of that year.
In any world that resembles our own, that plane would never have left the tarmac. This flight would never have happened. Therefore, the crash would never have happened. Therefore, the movie would never have happened. Why the fuck am I watching a story that should never have happened?
It would be an understatement to say that this movie gets off to a very rocky start. But I didn’t know just how rocky it could get.
See, after Whip wakes up in the hospital, he decides that he’s going to get sober. He’s done with alcohol. He takes every last ounce of liquor in his home (there’s a lot) and throws it all away. But then the toxicology report comes back, proving that Whip had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 and signs of cocaine in his system. His union-appointed lawyer can get the report thrown out on a technicality, but all eyes are going to be on him. Whip needs to straighten out and show the world that he’s not an alcoholic.
Whip responds to this news by going to the nearest bar and getting plastered.
Now, there’s a right way to craft a story about alcoholism and a wrong way to craft a story about alcoholism. Crazy Heart, for example, was a very good film about an alcoholic character who needs to straighten up. It was a good story because the signs got from bad to worse in a gradual fashion, and the main character really means it when he eventually decides to sober up.
By comparison, Whip spends the entire film going back and forth between “I want to sober up!” and “I’ve got a hangover! Where’s my cocaine?”
Whip takes every possible opportunity, without fail, to fall off the wagon. Every time he starts to make serious progress as a character, he’s only a few minutes away from going right back to square one. Eventually, it gets to the point where we know Whip doesn’t really mean it when he says he’s going cold turkey for good. There’s no way to trust this character, which makes it impossible for us to like him or emotionally invest in him.
Furthermore, why should we care if he gets life in prison for six counts of manslaughter? By Whip’s own admission, he doesn’t really have a life to lose anyway. If anything, prison might be the ideal place for him to sober up, free from the possibility of harming anyone else. Remember, the alternative would be letting Whip walk away from a crime everyone knows he committed, getting away with perjury, dodging all personal responsibility for his part in the accident, keeping his wings to endanger passengers another day. FUCK. THAT. NOISE.
Okay, in the interest of fairness, I should point out that this movie does eventually right itself. The film does pull back from its total void of morality… roughly five minutes from the end. By that point, dear reader, my patience had completely expired. Too little, too late.
Moving onto the film’s positive aspects, this movie has two things working very powerfully in its favor. First and foremost is Robert Zemeckis. After all of Zemeckis’ misadventures with motion-capture, it’s easy to forget that this is the same guy who won an Oscar for directing Forrest Gump. There’s no denying that Zemeckis — much like his mentor, Steven Spielberg — can manipulate the emotions of his audience with a very deft touch. Furthermore, anyone who’s seen Cast Away should recall that Zemeckis can deliver a plane crash like nobody’s business. Indeed, the plane crash is easily the best scene in the whole movie.
Secondly, there’s the cast. For all of my complaints about Whip’s godawful character arc, Denzel Washington turns in a very powerful performance. His portrayal of an alcoholic in denial was so believable that I wish he hadn’t wasted it on this movie or this character.
Then there’s Kelly Reilly, here playing the film’s love interest. Nicole is a very interesting character, primarily because she’s a junkie when we first meet her. As such, she’s hardly in any position to pass moral judgment on Whip for being an alcoholic. But then she starts making a serious effort to straighten up her life, which impacts the relationship in some intriguing ways.
Until now, Reilly has primarily been known for playing minor roles in Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. This prominent role was a huge step up for her and she played it admirably. I’ll be interested to see if her career benefits from it in any noticeable way.
Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle also appear in prominent supporting roles, and both of them turn in fine work. Melissa Leo drops by for a small yet vital part at the end, and she played it serviceably well. John Goodman does a fantastic job playing comedy relief, though I’m sorry to say he was terribly underutilized.
Still, the weak links in this cast were unquestionably Brian Geraghty and Bethany Anne Lind. Geraghty plays Ken Evans, who screamed and acted all panicky as Whip’s co-pilot. Lind plays his wife, an evangelical nut named Sheila. Together, they help convey the film’s religious angle, the execution of which is laughably bad.
From a purely technical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with Flight. The direction is good overall, the cast is solid, and the plane crash is fantastic. Unfortunately, this film is totally and irreparably broken by its main character. The protagonist is so utterly unlikeable and so completely impossible to trust that we’re left with no reason to emotionally invest in him or in the movie. I don’t know how many times this character broke his oath to go sober, but every time felt like a middle finger pointed at the screen.
If the film picks up awards buzz, it might be worth a look on DVD. Otherwise, don’t bother with a rental, and don’t even think about paying full price to see it on a big screen. There are far too many other films out right now that are more deserving of your time and money.
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