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Flight: On a Wing and a Prayer

by Ethan Alter November 2, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Flight:</i> On a Wing and a Prayer

According to the trailers, Robert Zemeckis's latest film (and his first live-action effort since Cast Away over a decade ago) Flight is about a daring pilot (Denzel Washington) who manages to land a free-falling plane with a minimal loss of life. Once he's on the ground, though, reports emerge that he may have been drunk as a skunk while flying, which means he might have caused the crash. So what's the truth? Is he a hero or a villain? The ads pose this question in the context of a thriller, playing up the notion that Washington is struggling to clear his name. The actual film, however, is something quite different and discussing it any substantial detail is going to involve discussing some key story points that aren't part of the trailers. So for those who prefer to remain at the boarding gate while I go on a ride with Flight, here's your Spoiler Warning.

With that out of the way, it's worth noting that spoilers are almost beside the point, as Zemeckis answers the trailer's biggest question -- whether Whip Whitaker (Washington) knowingly got onboard his plane drunk -- in the very first scene. The first image in Flight is of a naked woman (My Name is Earl's Nadine Velazquez) emerging from the bed where Whitaker lies passed out, bottles of liquor on the nightstand. Once he's awake, he prepares for his short-haul flight to Atlanta by knocking back a few swigs and then snorting lines of cocaine. So yes... he is absolutely unfit to fly. Or is he? Because once he's in the air and things start going badly -- for reasons that are clearly mechanical and have nothing to do with human error -- he's the only member of the flight crew that doesn't immediately lose their shit and start panicking. Instead he becomes almost supernaturally calm, issuing orders to his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and flight attendants and making a series of bold decisions up to and including flipping the plane upside down in order to slow the descent. Thanks to his actions, the plane's crash landing claims fewer than 10 lives. Even Whip manages to walk away relatively unscathed, with some bumps, bruises and a bashed-up leg.

It's just as well that his body is intact, because he'll need all his strength for the fight that lies ahead of him. A toxicology report has indicated that his blood alcohol level was above the acceptable limit for pilots and that piece of paper could spell the end of his career. Fortunately, he's got a killer lawyer on his side, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who asks him flat-out whether he was drinking before reporting for work and Whip does something that he, the lawyer and the audience might not expect: he tells the truth. So with the secret out (amongst his advisors, if not the general public) the idea that Flight will proceed as some kind of aviation-themed thriller is completely out the window. Instead, the movie becomes the portrait of an alcoholic and the lengths he goes to maintain his addiction, as well as the people around him that enable his habit instead of helping him get better. And perhaps that's the biggest spoiler one can reveal about Flight: this movie is closer to Leaving Las Vegas than Airport... although it does open with one of the most gripping plane crashes ever staged onscreen.

That sequence is also where the director's innate showmanship is really used to its full effect. Going back to his Romancing the Stone days, Zemeckis has long been a master of spectacle, staging terrifically exciting set-pieces that make great use of cutting-edge technology. Ever since Cast Away -- which, funnily enough, also opened with a plane crash -- he's been exploring the world of motion capture, a decade-long experiment that yielded the creepy Polar Express, the thrilling and underrated Beowulf and the decent, but not exceptional A Christmas Carol. While his mo-cap track record is certainly mixed, even the weakest of those movies (that would be Polar Express) is distinguished by Zemeckis's fluid camerawork and strong sense of pacing. And pacing is the thing that gives Flight's crash sequence so much of its power. Zemeckis expertly builds up to the plane's nose-dive and, once it's in free fall, he escalates the action without losing a sense of realism. This isn't Christopher Nolan's grand mid-air ballet from The Dark Knight Rises; it's a sweaty, claustrophobic disaster-in-the-making where only extraordinary actions will save the day.

The rest of Flight is equally well-directed, albeit in a more minor key. Once we're back on the ground, Zemeckis points his camera directly at his star and rarely looks away. (One nice repeated motif is the image of Washington setting a drink down on a table or counter and then taking a moment as he decides whether or not to pick it up again.) Ever since Leaving Las Vegas, Nic Cage's larger-than-life performance has become perhaps the defining image of the screen alcoholic and there's a similar streak of eccentricity in Washington's work here as well. But Whip isn't a guy who is in the process of ending his life with one last big bender. On the contrary, his alcoholism is the thing that keeps him alive and functioning. Much of his day-to-day existence involves either imbibing alcohol or checking his supplies to decide whether he needs more. And even though his addiction has cost him a great deal (most notably his wife and son), he simply can't let go. The character both complements Washington's skills (most notably his supreme confidence that comes with decades of kicking ass as an action hero) but also pushes him out of his comfort zone a bit; Whip may act like he's in control, but scenes like the one in which he buys an enormous bottle of vodka and then shotguns in while sitting in his car reveal he's most certainly not.

If the movie's portrayal of alcoholism is convincing, other elements are harder to buy into. Perhaps looking to recapture a little more of that Leaving Las Vegas magic, screenwriter John Gatins gives Whip a damaged love interest who at first helps his addiction, before trying to cure it. In Flight, this role is assumed by Kelly Reilly's Nicole, a drug addict who conveniently suffers an overdose at the exact same time Whip's plane is going down. The two wind up together in the hospital and share a cigarette and a heavy-handed conversation in a stairwell, before eventually deciding to shack up together. But after realizing how lucky she is to be alive, Nicole decides to commit herself to getting well and tries to do the same for her unappreciative sorta-boyfriend. Reilly does the best she can with this thankless role, but Nicole remains a walking plot point, someone who exists solely to reflect back on the main character instead of as her own person. And while the bulk of the movie isn't concerned with the legal machinations behind Whip's case, Zemeckis and Gatins can't resist ending the movie with a conventional pseudo-courtroom scene where the pilot has to testify in front of an FAA investigation panel. And while being in that setting is perhaps the only thing that could lead Whip to finally make the decision that he does, it feels like too much of a contrivance -- a forced attempt at a big public confession that might have had more power if it played out in private. For the most part, however, Flight is a sturdy adult-oriented drama that depicts the toll taken by alcoholism without turning into a public service announcement about the dangers of flying while drunk.

Click here to see our picks for the movie flights we're glad we weren't on
Click here to read our Q&A with members of Flight's cast and crew

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