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At an industry screening last November I heard an attendee remark that none of the crop of Academy-ambitious Fall movies seemed to be a dog... so far they were all good. Two nominee-hopefuls took a spectacular disaster as their subject. I hope to be able to review Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible when it arrives on disc. It is also a pleasure to remark on Flight, a Denzel Washington vehicle that's is the best movie Robert Zemeckis has made in a long, long while. It's exciting, it's dramatic, it's unpretentious.... and it doesn't use motion capture, a technology that's proved a dead end for Zemeckis in some really trying fantasy efforts. Flight has been nominated for Best Actor for Washington and Best Screenplay for John Gatins. It had me completely absorbed until the last couple of scenes, when it doesn't wrap up a few loose ends. But it's still a fine picture, and emerges with a solid "A ".
Career airline pilot Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) is a stealth alcoholic living on the edge. He goes on a binge the night before a quick hop to Atlanta. Convinced that he can handle anything, Whip raids the plane's liquor service bar for a morning pick-me-up. Near the end of the flight a critical control surface mechanism breaks, and the plane plummets into an unrecoverable nose-dive. To the shock of his co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) and his good friend flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie), Whip is cool under pressure. He takes immediate command and uses an inspired maneuver to pull out of the dive. The plane crashes but in such a way as to minimize the loss of life. Whip survives, and would seem to be an immediate national hero... but his friend and Union Rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) feels it necessary to bring in crack lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). Blood tests reveal Whip's advanced state of intoxication. It doesn't matter that he saved all those people, when practically no other pilot could: Whip may be going to prison.
Whip intends to play things straight. He even turns down the booze and drugs offered by Harling Mays (John Goodman), his vendor for all things illicit. But the pressure of a false lifestyle and his own mounting lies draw Whip back to the bottle. He's distraught over his relationship with his ex-wife and son, and humiliated by Charlie and Hugh's disapproval. Whip takes up with Nicole (Kelley Reilly), another hospital patient with a substance abuse problem, but can't honor his promises to her either. Whip has only a few days before a Federal hearing that could result in serious felony charges... and he just can't seem to stay sober.
Denzel Washington's portrayal of a habitual 'functioning' alcoholic, complete with the moods, the self-deceptions, the outright lies, is truly impressive. Whip Whittaker cons himself as much as he cons others. We like him the same way we like heroes, the kind of men that pull victory out of defeat or save lives when survival seems hopeless. In general, a professional that screws up day in, day out can nevertheless find redemption should he be lucky enough to do something fantastically successful or heroic that the public can appreciate. Whip is told by his onerous pusher Harling Mays that he'll never have to buy a drink in a bar again.
But unlike the media hero Sully Sullenberger, Whip responds to his miraculous feat by hiding out. He knows that the reporters will realize he's not sober, and that will make him as guilty as hell. Flight at first makes Whip seem the victim of rules that shouldn't apply to supermen. He leans on Margaret and Ken Evans to testify that he was in control, when both are very conscious of the fact that he was drunk on the flight.
We remember the moment in which Whip addressed his passengers on the plane, holding the intercom mike in his right hand. Meanwhile, he was pouring little bottles of vodka into a pitcher of orange juice. It's funny, it's outrageous, and because he functions so beautifully in the crisis, he seems a Wild and Crazy guy with a surfeit of The Right Stuff. How many old movies have we seen that make light of inebriation, by showing a drunk happily saving the day, or surviving precisely because he's too drunk to know he's about to drive off a cliff. After seeing Whip wrestle that plane to the ground, more or less in one piece, we think he walks on water.
Zemeckis handles his cast well. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are interesting, realistic men. Both seem to be basically ethical but they're not above pulling devious tricks to get Whip off the hook. The politics are such that defending Whip means defending the best interests of other pilots, that too often bear the brunt of hasty 'pilot error' judgments. Harling Mays is a colorful enabler/walking pharmacy, the kind of 'friend' nobody needs. John Goodman makes him a flashy, vulgar pro whose presence we come to dread. Nicole's drug addict provides an interesting contrast with Whip. She's technically a loser with nowhere to go but up, and all she needs is somebody to believe in. But she's also well qualified to instantly see through Whip's smokescreen of phony self-control.
Whip's luck going into the Federal hearing is phenomenal. A technicality will protect him to some degree, and Margaret will back him up against her better judgment. Ken the copilot is bitterly unshakeable in his resolve to tell the truth -- an episode with a surprising outcome for Whip. Not to be forgotten is Katarina "Trina" Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), a flight attendant personally involved with Whip. Her fate becomes the key factor in the outcome of Whip's dilemma.
The ending is not a problem exactly, but a disappointment in that I think it dodges the complexity of the film's thesis. (expect some imminent spoilers, here). Whip's decision to take personal responsibility provides a feel-good ending in which a good man gone wrong atones for his misdeeds and takes his medicine. It isn't exactly an inspirational ending, but it has a 'good solid moral'.
The only trouble is that the world we see doesn't work the way shown in Flight. Athletes, politicians, soldiers, famous people of all kinds don't spend years lying and deluding themselves and others, and then turn around and come clean as in a Frank Capra movie. The words "I'm responsible" in testimony now mean "I said the magic words, so leave me alone." Criminals looking to score sympathy points now showboat in front of interview cameras, talking about their crimes in the third person: "It happened", "when those terrible things occurred". The aim is to give the impression that they are somehow the innocent victims of their crimes, not the perpetrators. Many real out-of-control alcoholics, sexaholics or just plain corrupt politicians and athletes work up ridiculous cases of self-denial. When their lies overwhelm them, there are always other people to blame.
(real spoilers begin) Whip has previously been willing to do most anything to keep his dirty secret under wraps. I particularly like the moment where he goes down on his knees and prays with a witness who praises Jesus with every other breath. Even Whip feels he's being a hypocrite with that one.
When 'moral equilibrium' is restored at the end of the show, it really isn't. We don't know if the airline and the aviation manufacturer are now off the hook because of Whip's admission. The "SouthJet Airlines" company president has come off as almost sympathetic -- he'd rather own baseball teams, not an airline that might go broke because of a monster cash payout. His company is colluding with the Pilot's Union against the Federal investigators. The Union wants to save the airline, to save the jobs for its members. Where can the truth possibly fit in that equation? 1
Whip is the hero of this flight but his skill and intuition do not compensate for the fact that he's criminally responsible for risking passenger lives every day. He's a genuine menace. Screwed-up pilots, bus drivers, train engineers do exist, and sometimes cause tragedies. People like Whip eventually crash and burn in their private lives, taking a terrible toll on relatives and loved ones... even if they're not performing in a position of public trust. (for a real tangent, airline passengers shouldn't worry too much about what happens in Flight -- I'm informed that the airlines' general flight safety record has been really good in recent years.)
It does seem a shame that Whip Whittaker's skills, his grace under pressure, will now all be lost, but that's the cost of Screwing the Pooch. "The Right Stuff" is what we want in a pilot, and we must be able to believe in them. Think of Apollo 13, Sully Sullenberger or that pilot that flew a plane for a crash landing after he lost all control, and only had his engine throttles to keep things in balance. Who would choose the less experienced, unimaginative and panicky Ken Evans as his pilot, instead of (a sober) Whip Whittaker?
It's also possible to argue that if Whip squeaked by without being exposed, things would be better for everyone. Is ignominy and prison absolutely required for him to clean up his act? Morally the movie is still up in the air. What if the inquest hadn't cornered Whip into making his admission, would he have straightened out then? Can he be redeemed or must he hit rock bottom first? Flight brings up some interesting questions.
(spoilers over) Flight is a both a solid drama and a genuine thrill ride. Its characters grab us right away, and it can boast one of the most riveting and convincing scenes of mid-air jeopardy ever. This is one movie where the big action scene happens early on, and the rest of the show doesn't feel like a letdown. Director Zemeckis has a good command of his visuals, although his opening scene seems badly judged -- he concentrates on Trina's nude body in a way that makes us feel like voyeurs. Does he want us to feel guilty later on when Trina's dignity becomes the fulcrum for Whip's change of heart?
Paramount's Blu-ray of Flight is a fine encoding of this slick, attractive picture. The special effects sequences look especially good. I mistakenly watched the first five minutes of the DVD disc first, and came away surprised at how good it looks, too.
Paramount's extras are four EPK-grade featurettes and one post-screening question & answer session. The actors and writer John Gatins get plenty of attention, and director Zemeckis comes off as an in-charge kind of guy. The featurette Anatomy of a Plane Crash is about the clever special effects that make thirty passengers on a gimbals-mounted section of airplane look like a hundred. We don't get a discussion of whether or not Whip Whittaker's incredible aerial save-job was even possible. The show of course uses a fake airline name, but did the production designers fake a 'generic' jet plane as well, so that it could not be identified as any particular aviation industry product? Those flight controls are very convincing!
The keep case contains a Blu-ray and a DVD disc (the DVD has no extras), plus codes and instructions for downloading a Digital Copy and/or accessing "your" UltraViolet copy. I feel certain that home video companies will soon be trying to sell Ultraviolet access in lieu instead of physical media. That's great until they decide to yank access, for whatever reasons apply. I'm sure there will be fine print on the purchase agreement covering that eventuality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flight Blu-ray rates:
1. Zemeckis hasn't changed his politics -- this time the underhanded schemers are a Union rep and his attorney, who kill meaningful evidence, hide the truth and allow a drug pusher to make their alcoholic pilot seem sober. After the offhanded trashing of the anti-War movement in Forrest Gump, I'm not too receptive of Zemeckis' messages.
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T'was Ever Thus.