If you are a rabid consumer of news in the cine-osphere, following all the latest tidbits and op-eds on all things film, then you’ll likely know of the increasingly precarious state of the mid-budget drama.
What used to be the bulk of any given year’s film slate has recently become a more endangered species than the Siberian Tiger. In the absence of a wide array of choices for adult cineastes, the movie going public has been left with two radically contrasting options: either see a vapid, glorified pinball machine with a bunch of guys running around in capes saving the world from its ever-present impending doom, or see a post-grad’s treatise on the injustice of the current socio-economic system where the emotions are SO REAL, and the issues are SO IMPORTANT.
If you feel like anything in between, such as a movie in which its characters have a semblance of real human emotions but isn’t too pretentious to realize that works of cinema should engage the audience in an entertaining way, then Hollywood has basically given you the metaphorical middle-finger.
This frustration with the studio system’s obstinance towards funding anything outside its narrowly imagined view of what moviegoers are willing to see is felt just as passionately (if not more so) on the creative side of things. Directors with fairly big names (people such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and David Cronenberg just to name a few) have found it exceedingly difficult to find funding for their original projects, even in instances when big name actors have been attached to their work and forgo their typical star salaries. In Hollywood’s mind, the demand is just not there and the risks are just not worth it, which has made cable television the last bastion of adult-oriented drama.
This is why I must first, before getting into the specifics of the pros and cons of the movie, give Flight, and its director Robert Zemeckis, a round of applause for simply being made. Flight, despite what the trailers might have you believe, is not a high-octane rollicking thrill ride about a plane trip from hell (although that’s part of it). Instead, Flight is a character-centered study of addiction.
With a reported budget of over $30 million though, this is not some wet-eared first-time director turning his film-school short into a feature film, but rather a seasoned veteran, Zemeckis (of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame), with the backing of a major studio, Paramount, putting their full faith and names behind a movie that does not derive its origins from some market-place established intellectual property. If Zemeckis is ever up for sainthood, getting this film made should count towards the “miracles performed” requirement.
The story of Flight centers around Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot for some nondescript major airliner. Whip, a divorced father estranged from his family, lives the life of a detached middle-aged bachelor. Boozing, womanizing, and snorting his way through life, we join Whip on what presumably is just another day at the “office”. Some sex and spirits the night before, a pinch of cocaine as a pick me up, sneaking in a bit more alcohol on the plane, and Whip is ready for take-off. Unfortunately for Whip though, it’s not just another typical day.
Due to some mechanical malfunction, the plane begins to nosedive. Thinking quickly on his feet, and under the influence of narcotics, Whip takes some brazenly bold maneuvers, miraculously landing the plane in an empty Georgian field without totally destroying it. The story becomes a media sensation and Whip is instantly declared a hero, but with six dead and a toxicology report showing Whip wasn’t exactly of clear mind, things quickly begin to shift as Whip is made to face the possibility of incarceration, as well as his own personal demons he has denied for far too long.
One of the most surprising elements of Flight is it’s plodding pacing. This is a film that is not afraid to take it’s time getting where it wants to go, letting scenes develop and proceed in an extremely organic manner. Sometimes this is to the film’s benefit, and sometimes this is to the film’s detriment.
For instance, in the scene of the actual flight, the film’s confident stride, letting the events play out without artificial intensity boosts, such as quick cutting and shaky camera operating, infuses the scene with chillingly real terror. On the other hand, in some of the more melodramatic moments in the film, the measured pacing only serves to magnify the flimsier aspects of the screenplay, and where the film falters most is probably in it’s script.
Written by actor/screenwriter John Gatins, the film’s script revels too much in it’s own message. Adding in unnecessary elements and characters, pushing its luck through happenstance in order to add one more obstacle in Whip’s way, and ending on a note that is a little too karmically balanced for my taste. Ultimately, the story serves the moral, and not, as it should be, the other way around.
It also does not help that the film’s message isn’t particularly enlightening or interesting. Addiction is an undeniably terrible thing. It not only affects the person addicted, but also many of the addicts friends and relatives, so while I don’t mean to belittle the plight of anyone who is going through such issues, without being an addict myself, it is hard to relate to certain aspects of the film.
Particularly, the film heavily emphasizes the teachings of AA, to the point where I felt the film should have been titled Flight: Presented by Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the main tenets of AA is the recognition of a higher power, and in accordance with this, the film includes some awkward and out of place conversations about God and the nature of the Higher Power. While I do not object to these topics out of hand, the manner in which they are brought up in Flight feels forced and even a tad patronizing.
Despite these shortcomings in the film’s script, the sure hand of veteran Robert Zemeckis saves the film from over indulging in trite platitudes. Working in live-action for the first time since 2000’s Cast Away, Zemeckis conducts many of the scenes with dignified comportment, resisting the temptation to lay on overwrought orchestration when it would have been easy to do so. This means in the moments where the script does click, such as scenes between Whip, his friend Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), and his lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle), it really works well. The only criticism I have for Zemeckis is in his role as editor (along with the film’s actual editor, Jeremiah O’Driscoll), because at 139 minutes, Flight definitely could have used some trimming.
The most accolades for the film though have gone to, and should go to, its star, Mr. Denzel Washington. His performance in Flight is the heart of the film and one of the best, if not the best, of his career.
While Denzel’s fans have been numerous for some time, in the interest of full disclosure, I have never quite been on the Denzel bandwagon. My qualms with many of Denzel’s turns in the past has been his over reliance on bravado to carry him through the day, but what makes his performance in Flight superior to the usual “played by Denzel Washington” credit is that while the aforementioned swagger is still present (which is certainly called for given the character’s narcissistic tendencies), there’s a level of vulnerability here that is usually absent in Denzel’s performances. You can see the fear, the fear of truth, in Denzel’s eyes. Whip Whitaker is a man who will do anything to avoid confronting his personal failures, and Denzel portrays this wide-eyed desperation to a T.
Flight is a flawed melodrama with some great, “moments of clarity,” to ape some AA lingo. Glaring weaknesses in the screenplay keep Flight from soaring to higher altitudes, but anchored by a strong lead performance from Denzel Washington, and cool-headed direction from Robert Zemeckis, Flight is a fine entry into the speedily evaporating adult-drama genre.