Monday, November 26, 2012

Flight Movie Review

Most of us remember that remarkable incident of averting an air disaster when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditched a commercial airliner in the Hudson River alongside the Manhattan skyline after losing both engines to a flock of geese on takeoff. That man, otherwise ordinary except that he was suddenly and unexpectedly elevated to hero status for saving the lives of all on board, became an overnight media sensation. The talk shows wanted him for five minutes on air. Magazines wanted to delve into his personal history to find something in his past that led to his calm during what appeared to be certain death for everyone. What if it had turned out that he was drunk or high on drugs at the time? Would that negate the good he did in saving lives? What if the hypothetical alcohol in his system actually helped him relax enough to safely land the plane on the water? How does that change our approach to him as a human being and as a pilot?


Although writer John Gatins started working out the screenplay for Flight as far back as 1999, the Sullenberger Hudson River incident was clearly influential in the later development stages. The crash depicted in the film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, was also inspired by an actual crash that took place in 2000 in which there were no survivors. In Flight there is no question as to Captain “Whip” Whittaker’s state of inebriation. When we first see him he’s naked in a hotel room with a woman who turns out to be a flight attendant on the plane they’re due to fly from Orlando to Atlanta in an hour. They’re still carrying the effects of an alcohol fueled night and Whip, played by a Denzel Washington who let himself go for this role, takes a swig of beer and a line of coke. On the plane he sneaks a few single serving vodkas into his orange juice.

A terribly violent thunderstorm on takeoff establishes Whip as not only an expert aviator, but also a tremendous risk taker, much to the consternation of his less experienced co-pilot played by Brian Geraghty. After a routine flight toward their destination, the plane experiences a mechanical failure that sends it into a nose dive. While passengers and some crew brace for certain death and panic, Whip takes control in a scene of exhaustive tension. Washington’s line readings of the instructions he gives to his flight crew are replete with professional calm, but tinged with a hint of fear. Again, we are reminded of Sullenberger and those cockpit voice recordings announcing to Air Traffic Control, “We can’t make it to Teterboro. I’m gonna ditch in the Hudson.” The crash scene is convincing and extraordinarily well-directed. I have missed Zemeckis’s last three movies, all made using motion capture animation processes, but as an action sequence this rivals the best work he’s done in Back to the Future and even his other plane crash scene in Cast Away.

At the same time that Whip is trying to control his plane, a young woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is overdosing on heroin. The film presents its most striking image when she’s being carted away to the hospital as the plane passes overhead flying inverted, a move Whip executed to stop the nosedive. Their paths will cross in the hospital, forging a significant relationship in both their lives. Whip and Nicole are both addicts. While recuperating they share a cigarette fix together in the stairwell and are joined by a young man (James Badge Dale) from the basement cancer ward. It’s a simple dialogue scene mostly dominated by Dale’s character exhibiting a macabre and sardonic sense of humor, but it is expertly and classically composed and edited to establish the connection between Whip and Nicole.

It’s easy to look at Flight and see it as a story about an airline pilot trying to avoid prosecution for reckless endangerment at best and manslaughter at worst. The truth is that this is a story about an alcoholic hitting rock bottom and the people around him either enabling him or trying to help him. He is estranged from his ex-wife and teenage son presumably because of his drinking. His best friend is his dealer (John Goodman), who comes in only when Whip is at his lowest: first in the hospital to help him through withdrawal; then in a moment when he’s been on all night bender and has to be ready in the morning for a hearing with the NTSB official (Melissa Leo) heading up the crash investigation.

See, the problem is that Whip’s blood sample taken in the hospital showed a BAC three times the legal limit for driving a car. The pilots union representative – Whip’s old navy buddy played by Bruce Greenwood – and the union lawyer (Don Cheadle) think they can get the blood sample thrown out on a technicality. That would mean given all other evidence, the crash would be ruled entirely the result of mechanical failure and Whip regarded as a hero. It’s so nice to see a Hollywood movie with morally ambiguous characters and motivations, presenting complex ethical questions with no easy answers. There’s something to be said for the possibility that Whip’s condition may have actually helped him land the plane. But does that excuse his behavior? The pilots union isn’t evil in trying to cover up Whip’s inebriation. They’re doing their job as reps for a pilot facing legal problems. The airline’s owner is the most morally upstanding character. He wants to protect his company, but he’s quite clear behind closed doors what he thinks of a man who would fly a plane drunk.

Washington is as good as I’ve seen him. I’m so used to seeing him play men who are in control and sure of themselves. He rarely takes parts that involve characters exhibiting self-doubt. Think of him in films like Crimson Tide, Unstoppable and many others. He embodies those characteristics when piloting the plane, but through the rest of his life he has to play a man who thinks he’s completely in control, but who is far from it. It’s masterful to witness.

We’ve seen drunks in movies before. There are certain clichés that go along with a movie about an alcoholic. Gatins and Zemeckis embrace those clichés because they help us recognize what we’re dealing with. Whip’s first action upon getting out of the hospital is to ransack his farm house and discard every drop of booze he owns. And believe me when I tell you it’s a LOT of booze. But an alcoholic just needs one trigger to send him running for the liquor store. In Whip’s case it’s the moment when Cheadle’s character enlightens him as to exactly how much time in prison he could be looking at. Part of a drunk’s denial involves an insistence that he chooses to drink and can stop any time. And he does stop – several times. But then he starts again. This could have been a story about a school teacher who’s a drunk, but making him a pilot who had to crash land a faulty plane enriches the complexity of the character and his circumstances.

If I have any complaints about the movie, it’s the way Whip finally arrives at his admission of alcoholism. It’s a Big Cinematic Moment that occurs publicly, suddenly, and shockingly. It seems to me that most alcoholics do not come to these decisions lightly and easily. Nor does Whip, it must be said, but I found the circumstances far-fetched. He reaches his breaking point in a moment when he can either tell one more lie or give it all up and accept responsibility. The moment feels somewhat cheap compared to the care and precision taken throughout the rest of the film. I expected a better ending, but I find in thinking back on it the first 130 minutes reverberates much more than the final five.

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