Saturday, December 8, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Best at what he Does

One sentence synopsis:  An alcoholic airline pilot tries to deal with the aftermath of a plane crash in which he saved hundreds of lives.

Things Havoc liked:  Captain Whitaker wakes up in a hotel room with a stewardess, after a blackout night of alcohol and drugs. He deals with his ex-wife over the phone, angrily, and then drinks gin and snorts cocaine to wake himself up. He makes his way to the airport, and boards a plane, wherein he drinks vodka out of sight of anyone else, and hides the empty bottles in the trash. His Blood Alcohol level is three times the legal limit for drunk driving, and the personnel on the plane know that something is drastically wrong with him. And yet nobody says anything whatsoever, because Captain Whitaker is the pilot of the airplane. And in half an hour, he will unquestionably save the lives of almost everyone on board.

So begins Flight, a movie by Robert Zemeckis, one of the great directors of the last thirty years, whose credits include Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forest Gump, and right away, Zemeckis has forked us on the prongs of a contradiction. Captain Whitaker, played by the incomparable Denzel Washington, is a drunk, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and yet despite everything, a genuine hero, whose daring, skill, and coolness in an emergency saves the lives of 96 people on board his plane. These two facts are incontrovertible, apparent to everyone in the film and out of it, and yet the movie is not about whether or not Whitaker is these things. The movie is about how we, how everyone else, and most importantly, how Whitaker himself can square them together.

If Training Day (or Glory) taught us anything, it's that Denzel Washington is at his best when playing roles outside his previous straight-laced image, and sure enough, Washington is excellent in this role. Whitaker is a fascinating person, a raging alcoholic whose capacity to hold himself together enough to function (with the occasional assistance of drugs) is beyond anything we normally see in film. Most movie alcoholics act like pastiches of Irish drunks, or sobbing gutter-trash seeking for redemption they don't believe they deserve. Whitaker is a functioning alcoholic, an excellent pilot, capable of, despite a raging hangover, extemporaneously speaking to the press without being discovered as drunk. We see him undergo the crash, the aftermath, see the wolves beginning to circle as a toxicology report finds evidence of his drinking, and lawyers debate what should be done with a man who was clearly drunk on duty, but without whom not one soul would have survived the crash. As it proceeds, and the drinking begins to take hold of Whitaker, Washington's performance becomes increasingly hard to watch, even 'cringeworthy' (in the words of a viewing companion), yet it never loses our attention, nor becomes less effective. It may not be Washington's best performance, but it's definitely in the discussion.

Zemekis is a world-class director, and for his return to live action, he has assembled an excellent supporting cast. John Goodman plays a drug dealer that seems to be taken straight out of a 70s film, whose small time on screen is absolutely riveting, while Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle play lawyers of various types, more or less acquainted with the truth about Whitaker, and whose agendas force them into covering for him even if they would prefer not to. Yet the movie is not really about a procedural coverup, nor about the relationships between these men and Whitaker. To an extent, it is about Nicole, a Heroin addict played by Sherlock Holmes' Kelly Reilly, whom Whitaker meets in the hospital and has a relationship with afterwards. And yet ultimately it isn't about Nicole either, but about Whitaker, who he is, what he is, and how we, the audience, are supposed to take him.

Things Havoc disliked:  All of which would be fine if the movie didn't raise some serious questions about what's going on here.

The film is very, very clear that the crash was caused by mechanical failure. The specific part that led to the aircraft's failure is highlighted in a public hearing by the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. The aircraft's black box shows Captain Whitaker as being in control and command for the entire crash landing process, including performing an incredible stunt to stabilize the plane, inverting it into a roll and then locating a place to put it down. Cheadle's character informs Whitaker at one point that ten veteran pilots were placed in simulators of the accident, and all ten crashed and killed everyone aboard. None of the facts surrounding the crash appear to be in question.

So given that, what in the hell are we doing here?

Yes, Whitaker is a drunk and a drug abuser. These facts are not in question. Yes, it is illegal to fly an airplane under the influence of alcohol. This is also not in question. But the investigation into the crash quickly seems to turn into a witch hunt to "get" Whitaker, despite literal mountains of evidence that his drinking had nothing whatsoever to do with the crash, and that his presence in the cockpit directly led to the survival of the passengers of the plane. Given the heroic nimbus that immediately encircled Captain Sullenberger three years ago when he managed to ditch his broken airliner in the Hudson River, I admit that I don't see what in the hell would prompt the NTSB or anyone else to conduct the inquisition that they do into Whitaker's drinking. Granted, Whitaker is an out-of-control drunk who should not be flying, but we get no sense throughout the film of why the head prosecutor wishes to go after him, no idea of what her agenda actually is in attacking a genuine hero, nor in what backlashes she may face for doing so. With no evidence that Whitaker's drinking had anything to do with anything, and plausible explanations for what caused the crash in-hand, we are forced to assume motivations that don't exist for the government's pursuit of Whitaker. He clearly saved lives. He clearly did not cause the plane to crash. Why threaten him with manslaughter charges?

Final thoughts:   I suppose the answer to my question above is 'drama', which is fair enough I guess, and the question of why Whitaker is going through all this is secondary when you stop and think about it. Flight is a picture that knows what it is about, and tells us its story without feeling the need to up the stakes above what they already are, letting us make our own conclusions up about the main character and what should be done with him. It is admittedly very hard to watch at times, to the point where it may well enter into that nebulous category of movies that are good, but that I don't want to see any more of (Bad Lieutenant, Sophie's Choice, Leaving Las Vegas). But if you can't separate the quality of a movie from how nasty its subject matter is, then honestly, you've no business watching movies at all.

Final Score:  7/10

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