Don’t Drink and Fly: A Public Service Announcement from the Makers of Flight
Whip surveys the wreckage: Denzel Washington is very good as a hero pilot who saves the passengers on his broken airliner but in the process exposes himself as an alcoholic and drug addict in Robert Zemeckis’ earnest and at times preachy melodrama, Flight.
John Goodman bursts onto the screen, shaded, goateed, trailing a long, braided ponytail, the even longer cord on the earjack of his iPod, the improbable name of Harling Mays, and the promise of some comic relief, which we sorely need after the harrowing plane crash that opens Robert Zemeckis’ overly earnest, over-long, and over-done drama Flight, starring Denzel Washington as a hero pilot with six Jack Lemmons’, three Ray Millands’, and at least one Nicolas Cage’s worth of an Oscar-baiting drinking problem that he balances out with a Michael J. Fox level of an addiction to coke and pills.
As Washington’s drug and booze connection and personal anti-nutritionist and unfitness guru, Goodman arrives as if blown in from another movie, patly accompanied on the soundtrack by Sympathy for the Devil, raising hopes (my hopes, at any rate) that he is the devil or at least one of the devil’s human avatars and he’s about to turn Flight into a very different sort of movie. A satire on the media and the nature of heroism, maybe, which is what I was expecting, because, really, who needs another earnest morality tale about the fall, recovery, and redemption of a drunk?
It turns out Goodman might as well be in another movie for all his character and his performance have to do with what Zemeckis is up to in Flight. Washington and the actress playing his nurse in the hospital where he's recuperating from the crash seem not to know what to make of Goodman either, as if they weren't expecting him ---Goodman not Mayes---to show up, at least not like this. I can't recall ever seeing actors in a movie just stop acting and stare in complete bewilderment at a co-star's performance. It's almost as if Goodman had said to himself, Screw this! and thrown his script away just before the camera started to roll. (I know. Cameras don't roll anymore. Give me time. I'll catch up.) what I suspect was actually going on is that Zemeckis couldn't reconcile what he had them doing with what he had Goodman doing, which is a general weakness throughout flight.
Goodman isn't the only one who seems to be in a different movie from the one---the ones---everyone else is in.
Kelly Reilly is in a gender-switched version of The Basketball Diaries cleaned up and made more family-friendly for a showing on Lifetime. Don Cheadle's starring in a courtroom drama a la A Civil Action. Washington's acting up a storm in an update of The Lost Weekend. And Zemeckis hasn't found a way to blend them all tonally, structurally, thematically, or stylistically. He leaves it up to Washington to pull it all together with the magnetism of his charisma and the binding force of his performance.
It's one heck of a performance. As Whip Whitaker a commercial airline pilot who hasn't lost the swagger or the the recklessness of his days as a Navy fighter pilot and who just to keep himself sharp flies his jetliner as if he was still in the cockpit of an F-14, when he's not so hungover or drunk or high he has to leave all the work to his co-pilot and take a nap in the cockpit, Washington is very good. He's very good a lot. John Gatins’ screenplay makes sure that he doesn’t lack for opportunities to be very good. The script will give him a chance to be very good in a scene and one scene later he'll be called on to be very good again. Sometimes he gets to be very good twice in the same scene.
You're getting the picture, right?
Flight is a showcase for Denzel Washington to the point that his being very good becomes the point of the movie.
What Flight isn't is a coherent story about a pilot who happens to be an alcoholic becoming a hero despite himself and having his sudden fame threatening to expose his secrets and many flaws to the world. Instead it's the story of an alcoholic who incidentally is a pilot but might as well be a lawyer or a doctor or a politician or an insurance agent for all it really matters to who he is as a character or to the story he's in. The crash and the investigation that follows are plot devices that drive him towards choosing between confronting the truth about his drinking problem or continuing along his current path of self-destruction.
Now here’s where a critic like me can get himself in trouble. And by “a critic like me” I mean me. When I start to review the movie I wish the director had made instead of the one he did make. And clearly I wish Zemeckis had made a different kind of movie. One more like Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe or Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero or Stephen Frears’ 1992’s Hero, in which Dustin Hoffman plays an obnoxious and selfish little nudnik who despite himself acts heroically to save the lives of passengers of an airplane that has crashed in an icy river only to have the credit for the rescue go to a more conventionally heroic sort played by Andy Garcia. Flight sets up the same questions as those films---What happens when the public’s perception of a hero is very different from the hero’s own perception of himself? What happens if the hero is in fact not a hero? What if the hero doesn’t deserve the acclaim and the love and the rewards being bestowed on him?---but Zemeckis and Gatins not only don’t try to answer them, they don’t even address them. A pilot who pulled off in real life what Whip pulls off in the movie would be revered by the public and worshiped by the media. Ask Captain Sully Sullenberger.
But while we’re told Whip’s a national hero, we never see or hear anybody treating him as one. As soon as Whip’s recovered enough to leave the hospital, he retreats to his family farm way out in the country to hide and from there on out nobody seems much interested in him as a hero. Whip has reasons to feel as guilty about what happened as proud and of course he has an excellent reason not to want the public get to know who and what he is in addition to being the best goddamn pilot in the world. But it turns out that everybody he comes in contact with---and Whip keeps forgetting he’s trying to hide and wandering away from the farm, usually to go buy more beer and booze (Why he doesn’t call on Harling Mays to bring it to him, I don’t know.)---seems privy to his secrets and dedicated to making him feel more guilty while the reporters and TV crews on his trail seem intent not on exploiting his heroism for ratings and page views but exposing him as a fraud, which if they were part of the Washington political press corps and Whip was a Democrat running for office might happen, but in the case of hero pilot who saved ninety-six people with his skill and derring-do? Not likely. It’s as if Zemeckis and Gatins have never seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Melodramas about characters confronting their demons in the form of various addictions have a venerable and even illustrious tradition. They’re not my favorite sort of movies and I was disappointed that Flight turned out to be one of those. But if Zemeckis had wanted to make one of those, the crash wouldn’t have been necessary. The possibility of a crash would have been enough. It doesn’t matter that this one time Whip has the skill and the courage to save his broken plane even while drunk. It matters that one of these days when he climbs into the cockpit drunk or high he will make a mistake he can’t recover from and rack up the plane. By including the crash, which makes for spectacular cinema, by the way, although, as I’ve been saying, the by-the-wayness of it is a problem, Zemeckis raises questions and expectations that that he spends the rest of the movie ignoring. That’s not a good thing for a director to do.
Beyond that, though, there’s Zemeckis’ failure to bring together the different types of movies his characters are in.
Cheadle never gets to show off the impressive legal skills his character boasts of. Reilly follows her own road to redemption right out of the movie. Nothing really gets going with Goodman. All these separate subplots do is add length to a movie that clocking in at two hours and eighteen minutes is half an hour too long. But Zemeckis also draws things out through a lack of economy. He rarely does with one shot what he can do with three or lets a character say with a look or a gesture what they can say with a long speech. He repeats himself. He lets his actors repeat themselves.
And never mind that Flight isn’t the satire I’d have preferred. Except for the scenes with Goodman, this a movie strikingly low on humor or wit or any sense of irony.
Also, it’s preachy. In fact, at times, it borders on the out and out Christian. Not quite in the way of redemptive, uplifting, and overtly religious movies like Soul Surfer, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants. More in the tradition of old-fashioned, homilitic Hollywood tearjerkers, just without any kindly priests of the Pat O’Brien/Spencer Tracy mold and no late night, lonely visits to church, although Whip is dragged to an AA meeting at one point.
Most damaging of all is that Flight is a realistic movie that never feels real. It’s not just that the Media don’t behave like the Media or that people don’t react to Whip as they did to Sully Sullenberger. It’s not just that the script seems to be inventing rules and regulations, practices and procedures for the airline industry for the convenience of the plot. It’s that the movie misses the implications of one of its own major plot points.
Whip’s plane goes into a nose dive mid-flight because an vital component of the hydraulic system snaps. That component, we’re told, had been identified in an inspection as past due for replacement a year before this flight!
I don’t believe that if the news came out that an airline was putting defective planes in the air anybody would care that the pilot who saved the passengers on one of those planes that came apart in midair might have been a little the worse for a few drinks.
Well, actually, the movie presents us with one person who does care. I didn’t mention another member of the cast who’s stuck in her own movie.
Melissa Leo has a delicious and devilish (though a very different sort of devil than Goodman’s) cameo as an inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board who is on to Whip from the beginning and seems determined to expose him and send him to jail. In her apparent lack of interest in the real crime---the airline’s negligence---and obsession with bringing Whip to her idea of justice, she’s like a more well-intentioned Javert to Whip’s much less noble Jean Valjean.
Now that’s a movie I would have liked to see.
Of course I’ll have my chance in December.
But to get back to the movie I did see.
Flight annoyed and disappointed me but it’s not terrible. And there’s one compelling reason to see it.
Denzel Washington is very good.
Did I mention that?
Very, very good.
The Blonde’s Blurb: “Denzel! Wow!”
Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by John Gatins. Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, and Nadine Valazquez. Rated R. Now in theaters.