Monday, November 5, 2012

A Bumpy FLIGHT


Howard Hawks once said a good movie has three good scenes and no bad scenes. Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action movie in twelve years, tweaks the formula by giving us three great scenes and a few bad ones. Two of the great scenes are right up front. The opening puts us in a hotel room with airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and the flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) he spent the night with. The camera’s nonchalant capture of skin, sheets, and bottles of booze reveals a director who, after making (mostly great) animated movies over the past decade, is reveling in his return to live action, to flesh and blood and earthly pleasures. The pilot, slow to wake up, does a line of cocaine, snorting it up as classic rock on the soundtrack blares to life and the camera flings back with his newly energized head. He’s ready to go, and so is the movie.

Right away, the script by John Gatins puts the audience in the unusual position of not knowing how to take the main character. There’s an instinctive cringing dread to seeing a pilot drunkenly inhale coke before a flight, but the smart casting balances this out. Denzel Washington, confident and cool, has intense audience affection. (He’s one of the few true Movie Stars left). The audience wants to root for Denzel the wise, Denzel the tough-but-fair, but the movie gives us a different kind of Washington role. Here his bravado is empty. He’s good at his job, very good as we’ll soon find out, but his addictions have gotten the best of him. His overconfident suaveness covers up all manner of lies and deceptions that are barely hidden from sight. In a small gesture Zemeckis catches in the corner of a frame, Whitaker slips, only just catching his footing, while climbing aboard the plane.

In the movie’s next great scene, the ordinary flight goes horribly wrong, but not because of its impaired pilot. Suffering devastating mechanical failure, the plane enters a terrifying nosedive. The shot that looks through the cockpit window as the clouds part to reveal the rapidly approaching ground is a gripping moment of stomach-flipping suspense. With convincing special effects and precise blocking, the plane crashes. With miraculous quick thinking, Captain Whitaker brings the plane down relatively safely, through a scary, effective extended scene in which the plane, falling out of the sky, ends up flying upside down before slicing through a church steeple and slamming into a field. Somehow, out of 102 people aboard the flight, 96 survive.

The film follows the aftermath of this accident. The media calls the pilot a hero. The pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood) tells Whitaker to keep a low profile, to not speak to the press. The union calls in a lawyer (Don Cheadle) to handle the criminal side of the accident investigation. It’s clear that the plane suffered mechanical difficulties. It’s also clear that the pilot was inebriated. He is hero; he is a criminal. The film creates a convincing scenario from which there can be no easy answers, from which there’s no easy way out. It’s perhaps somewhat inevitable that, in pursuit of some sort of resolution, the film can’t bring this conflict to a convincing resolution. That it tries is its biggest miscalculation.

Until that point, however, the film is an intermittently gripping character study in the body of a procedural. As the accident investigation moves forward, step by methodical step, Whitaker struggles with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. He calls his dealer (John Goodman), but refuses to take more drugs. He befriends an addict (Kelly Reilly) and encourages her to get help, all the while refusing to admit he has problems of his own. In a quick-cut montage, he dumps all his booze down the drain, but days later buys a case and can’t even get out of the parking lot before he takes a swig.

He’s a man given a big wake-up call, a near-death experience that might result in his going to prison, and yet he still refuses to let himself admit that he has a problem. One night, confronted about his drinking, he bellows that he “chooses to drink.” Advised by his lawyer to stop drinking, Whitaker calmly says that he will. He thinks he can stop cold turkey by simply choosing to do so, through his sheer force of will. The last great scene in the film involves the soft hum of a refrigerator generating suspense in the middle of the night. It calls to Whitaker. Will he open it? Will he break his sobriety once more?

Gatins script could have been directed as nothing more than a standard Hollywood substance abuse parable and, though it occasionally is just that, especially in the painfully obvious music cues, it’s often energized by Zemeckis’s confident, composed studio dramaturgy and Washington’s seemingly effortlessly complicated performance. The only problem with creating such a high-flying drama is the high probability that it’ll be brought in for a crash landing. In a funny structural echo of the doomed flight at the center of it all, the film starts strong, soars high, but then loses altitude before crash landing into the end credits. By choosing to focus on a situation that’s intriguingly irreconcilable, I can’t exactly blame the filmmakers for finding a way to reconcile the film’s various strands that seems too easy and even has one particular scene that’s so bad it appears to be counter to their thematic intent. I’m just disappointed that they couldn’t find the film a landing to match the sensational takeoff. 

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