Tonight’s movie was the new Denzel Washington film, Flight, directed by Robert Zemickis, otherwise known for his work with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Cast Away.
Here’s the trailer, which goes for 2.5 minutes and should be watched in full to understand this review.
OK, forget what you just saw, because any notions of heroism and survivor guilt – the themes I get from that trailer – are not central to this film at all.
Flight is essentially a film about functional alcoholism, denial, failure and redemption. Call me harsh, but I deduct one star straight up for trailers that bear little resemblance to the film in question.
Flight starts with an action sequence: Captain William ‘Whip’ Whittaker (Washington) takes his passenger jet with 102 souls on board through significant turbulence after take-off before levelling off into a peaceful flight. The turbulence, however, was enough to trigger the malfunction of a poorly maintained part in the tail of the plane, forcing an uncontrolled dive and eventually the inverted flying sequence you saw in the trailer. This leads to a crash landing where the death toll is a remarkably low 6 people.
This is a very convincing and well constructed sequence, even if you’re skeptical about the physics involved in the narrative. That sequence and the character introductions beforehand take up the first 25 minutes of the film. The remainder is concerned with the ensuing investigation and the traumatic personal journey of an alcoholic pilot trying to avoid the consequences of a hearing into the crash.
Whittaker knows that the plane malfunctioned. He knows that he did something heroic in saving the lives of 96 people. He also knows that he had significant amounts of both alcohol and cocaine in his system. What’s more, the investigators know this, too, and there’s considerable angst about this for both Whip and his appointed lawyer (Don Cheadle).
An unlikely paradox emerges where his state of altered consciousness (functioning drunk combined with cocaine) might have been the only thing that kept him calm and functioning while those around him were panicking during the emergency. On the other hand, he knows on a rational level that he is a confirmed alcoholic and that there might be consequences from the hearing, but he believes on a personal level that his alcoholism doesn’t affect his life. Like many alcoholics, he has coping mechanisms that allow him to function on a professional and personal level.
Flight didn’t leave me feeling satisfied. Whip’s unlikely relationship with Nicole (well played by Kelly Reilly) didn’t feel damaging enough to realistically reflect his downward spiral. His likeable former colleague and pilot’s union representative, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) ultimately lacks integrity. The most convincing and entertaining performances were cameos from John Goodman as Whip’s Sugarman, Harling Mays, and Tommy Kane as a young cancer patient who provides some basic life philosophy shortly after the crash.
I guess what got to me the most was the fact that Whip was allowed to redeem himself, by himself. All the alcoholics I’ve known of hurt those around them before they hit rock bottom and this wasn’t depicted in the film in a real enough way for me to get engaged in the narrative. I felt no sympathy for Whip and I felt little sense of justice in what ultimately happened to him.
In a nutshell – The film should have had what was in the trailer – the drama of massive adulation and a massive fall from grace. Instead, it coasted along the middle ground, much like a functioning alcoholic would try to do, I guess.
My fellow movie-goers tonight say that I’m a hard taskmaster and they’re probably right. Should I mention that one of them is a pilot in training and two others are boarding an international flight on Sunday morning? They all seemed to enjoy Flight much more than I did so you should feel free to take my thoughts with a grain of salt and go see the film with an open mind. They all gave the film ratings between 3 and 4 stars.
Me? I started this review with a 2 on my mind but I’m willing to concede my hard taskmaster mindset and upgrade that to 2.5 stars out of 5.