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“Flight” has an obvious double meaning: both Southjet flight #227, with 102 passengers on board, which Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) lands in a Georgia field after a mechanical failure, saving all but six people; and Whitaker’s subsequent flight from the knowledge, the lifelong knowledge, that he’s a drunk and an alcoholic, and that he landed the plane under the influence, and now people know.
The trailer really plays up the hero angle, doesn’t it? I went back and looked at it again. It implies that “Flight” is a movie about a heroic pilot who saves 100 lives in a derring-do, upside-down, crash landing—thrillingly filmed by director Robert Zemeckis and DP Don Burgess—and then runs into some bullshit. But the movie’s about the bullshit. And it’s not bullshit.
The movie opens at 7:14 AM—an homage to Babe Ruth or “Dragnet”?—as Whitaker is awakened by his iPhone. His bed partner, flight attendant Nadine (Katerina Marquez ), is awakened, too; and while he staggers his way through a conversation with his ex-wife, she walks back and forth, stunning us with her nakedness. At one point she bends over. “I’ve been up since … the crack of dawn,” Whit says to his ex-wife. It’s his first lie in the movie. At least it’s a witty one. Is there a reason for this nakedness other than the “wow” factor? Is it designed to make us feel guilty? Distracted? We thought we were seeing a Denzel Washington character study and suddenly we’re waylaid by this naked beauty.
At which point Whip hangs up, finishes his beer, snorts some cocaine and gets ready to fly an airplane in bad weather. Yeah, “Flight” won’t be your in-flight movie anytime soon.
So we know his problem from the get-go. Would the movie have been better if, like the trailer, it had engaged in a little subterfuge? If it had begun with Capt. Whitman entering the cockpit, the conversation there, the cup of coffee? We think we’re watching the story of a hero and object when the railroading begins. Until we realize it isn’t railroading.
The straightforward approach has the advantage of being straightforward. It has the disadvantage of not surprising us much.
The soundtrack doesn’t help. Whip’s drunk/coked-up walk to the airplane is accompanied by Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright (Not feeling too good myself).” His first visitor in the hospital is Harling Mays (John Goodman), friend and drug dealer, whose entrance is accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” As foreplay at Whip’s farm? Marvin Gaye.
Sympathy for the Devil
Harling is an interesting character. He’s essentially a bad person, the man who keeps Whip on the wrong path, but we like him because he’s John Goodman. He bosses around the nurse, calls her “Nurse Ratched,” and, when she’s gone, leaves Whip some smokes and “stroke mags.” He would’ve left vodka, too, but Whip tells him to take it with him. He’s in shock at this point. He’s trying to change. Six people died on his watch, including Nadine. And now the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) knows about his problem. They took blood from the flight crew, including those, like Nadine, who didn’t survive, and they know about the booze and coke. What we don’t know, what we don’t find out until a late-morning meeting between the pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood), Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a quiet-but-tough Chicago lawyer, and Whip, is that Whip’s blood-alcohol level was .24. That’s three times the legal limit to drive. A car. He’s facing criminal negligence and manslaughter charges.
Pursued by the media, pursued by his demons, Whip tries to remove all evidence of his problem. At the family farm, where he learned to fly in a Cessna 172 crop duster, he gets rid of all the booze: beer, wine, hard liquor. He gets involved in a relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a red-headed masseuse and heroin addict whom he met in the stairwell of the hospital, and whose story, pre-crash, had been intercut with his. She goes to AA meetings. He falls off the wagon in a bad way. If he was ever on it.
As bad as we thought he was? He’s worse. Denzel is amazing here. The overwhelming confidence he brings to his characters is cut in half, and laced with doubt and guilt. He’s overweight and out-of-shape but you see it more in the way his face crumbles. His mouth doesn’t work right and his chin recedes. Screenwriter John Gatins is an alcoholic himself and he gets all the excuses right. “What, you want to count the fucking beers?” he says to Nicole. “I choose to drink,” he says to everyone, particularly himself. Watching Denzel, I got flashbacks to the alcoholics I’ve known. It’s not like Goodman. There’s no charm here. There’s just sadness and disgust.
The movie builds toward a public hearing before the NTSB and we find ourselves in Whip’s shoes, rooting for him to get away with it. I caught myself doing this several times and consciously reversed course. No, get caught, motherfucker. For you and the people who know you.
The reckoning is predictable, and of Whip’s choosing. He has his “one too many lies” moment. He can’t tell another. In the end he can’t lie about Nadine, the girl he was with in the beginning, and who never made it out of Flight #227.
What’s Going On?
There are some great supporting performances here, particularly Goodman, Cheadle, Melissa Leo as the NTSB investigator and James Badge Dale as a cancer patient, and of course Denzel dominates, but the movie’s too long. 138 minutes? I would’ve cut Nicole’s whole backstory—shooting up, trouble with the scuzzy landlord, blah blah—as well as Whip’s final scene with his son, and ended it with him talking to his fellow prisoners: “For the first time in my life I’m free.” When he said it I thought: Good end. But the movie kept going.
The bigger problem? Stories about alcoholics are not that interesting. You either continue on your downward trajectory, hit bottom and struggle back up, or die. That’s it, and that’s not enough. Is there a way to make them better? Everyone carries around something that weighs on them, some shame, but most of us are able to live with it. We function in a way alcoholics can’t. Thus there’s no public reckoning or admission. Is another group of people involved in this kind of public confession? With like-minded people? It’s like coming out of the closet but without the celebration. Maybe there should be more celebration. There’s the shame of your life being controlled and consumed, but there’s courage in the confession.
November 25, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard