Director : Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay : John Gatins
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Denzel Washington (Whip Whitaker), Kelly Reilly (Nicole Maggen), Bruce Greenwood (Charlie Anderson), Don Cheadle (Hugh Lang), John Goodman (Harling Mays), Nadine Velazquez (Katerina Marquez), Melissa Leo (Ellen Block), Brian Geraghty (Ken Evans), Tamara Tunie (Margaret Thomason),
Flight marks the return to live-action drama for director Robert Zemeckis, who has spent the past decade making motion-capture computer-animated films, none of which really worked due to both the limitations of the technology and its tendency to lure filmmakers into bombast and overkill. The last time the Forrest Gump auteur pointed a camera at a live actor he didn’t intend to wrap in 1’s and 0’s, Tom Hanks was talking to a volleyball on a desert island in Cast Away (2000), and in Flight he is faced with the kinds of daunting dramatic challenges he has largely avoided for the past 12 years. At its heart, Flight is a story about the question of redemption—not just whether the protagonist-in-crisis can be redeemed, but whether we want him to be redeemed, at least in the manner that is most likely to result in true justice.
Flight’s protagonist is Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a former Navy ace and veteran airline pilot who we see in the film’s visceral opening sequence crash-land a plane that begins to come apart in the air by first inverting it to avoid a nose-dive and then steering it toward an open field to avoid crashing in a populated area. His maneuvers are a success, as he lands the plane with minimal loss of life when it was virtually assured that everyone on board would die. The plane crash is just the prelude, though, as Whip’s overnight hero status (think Chesley Sullenburger, the pilot who successfully landed a jet in the Hudson River in 2009) is immediately threatened by the revelation that he had both alcohol and cocaine in his system that morning. The fact that his performance in the cockpit was nothing less than spectacular (if not miraculous) matters little since six people died in the crash and someone has to be blamed.
Whip’s inebriation that morning was not an isolated incident, but rather the result of years of alcoholism and drug abuse. Thus, Flight becomes a two-pronged drama, simultaneously focusing on the question of whether the investigation will end with Whip being held criminally responsible and how much will his substance abuse dominate his life as the pressure mounts. While in the hospital after the crash, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a young woman who is trying to kick a heroin addiction and get her life back in order. She ends up coming to stay with Whip at his father’s farm, where he is isolating himself to stay clear of the media, and she offers both a romantic subplot and a sharp contrast to Whip, who refuses to admit that he has a problem (he is proud of his ability to “manage” his drinking) even as he slips deeper and deeper into the alcohol-soused void that has already cost him a marriage and a relationship with his son, who is now a teenager and barely knows him.
In terms of the investigation, Whip is being protected by the pilot’s union, which sends Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), one of his old Navy buddies, as their representative. They also hire Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the kind of seasoned criminal defense attorney who says, “My clients don’t go to jail” as if it were an inviolable law of physics. Whip has a good chance of beating the rap once Lang gets his toxicology report thrown out on technicalities, as long as he answers the investigators’ questions right and stays away from the sauce long enough to present himself as the upstanding heroic savior the media have already made him out to be.
This presents a tricky moral conundrum for the viewer, as the film’s suspense hangs heavily on whether Whip will be exonerated for something of which we know he is guilty. The mechanics of Hollywood narrative (and the presence of Denzel Washington in the lead role) immediately engage our sympathies and desires to see Whip escape punishment simply because he’s the protagonist even though we understand that, while he may not be at fault for the crash, his being drunk behind in the cockpit was an inexcusable and lethal threat to innocent lives. Even then, though, the question of guilt and responsibility is a thorny one since Whip could not have done anything about the plane coming apart midair even if he had been stone-cold sober, and his landing of the plane could not have been better (at one point we learn that numerous seasoned pilots in simulators were unable to recreate his landing and “killed” everyone on board trying).
Washington’s performance is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, as he navigates with great dexterity the inherent difficulties of playing a character who is not a villain, but still does terrible things. Whip is a tragic figure, a man in crisis and at the mercy of his own worst impulses, and at his lowest his behavior is truly vile, driving away anyone who might try to help him. Zemeckis rightly understands that Washington has a powerful screen presence, and he allows most of the film to rest on his shoulders as he struggles with both his addiction and his fear of losing the life he has left. The fact that we are drawn into his experience and literally find ourselves hoping that he can successfully lie during the investigation is evidence of just how powerful the film is in manipulating our emotions.
Yet, as good as it is, Flight has some nagging problems that I just couldn’t quite shake, starting with Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s longtime friend who supplies him with drugs when he needs to balance out the effects of being drunk. Harling is a good-time man, and he struts through life with the kind of blustery swagger and joviality that makes him immediately appealing even as he plays the devil in enabling Whip’s alcoholism. Zemeckis overplays the character, introducing him with thumping Rolling Stones tunes that comment amusingly on the character’s amorality (“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter”) while also imbuing him with an easy-going sense of cool and allowing Goodman’s comical gregariousness to steal each of the scenes in which he appears while avoiding any kind of meaningful moral standing. Zemeckis is clearly trying to lighten up the mood a bit in order to keep the film from becoming, in Pauline Kael’s turn of phrase, “obscenely self-important”; nonetheless, it doesn’t really work because it distracts in all the wrong ways and makes it difficult to get back into the more serious-minded flow.
Similarly, the film works in some slapdash themes about religion and the role of God in inexplicable disasters by having Whip crash the plane in a field next to a Pentecostal church (whose steeple is symbolically ripped off) and revealing that Whip’s copilot is a fervent Christian fundamentalist whose wife stands by his hospital bed mechanically repeating “Praise Jesus!” like a creepy automaton. While the film’s portraits of alcoholism and male crisis are nuanced and moving, its approach to religion feels like a sledgehammer swinging at the air, making a big show but not actually making a dent. It’s not enough to sink the film as a whole, but it’s enough to make you wonder if the filmmakers were completely sure of what they were trying to say.
|Flight Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 5, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 1080p high-def image on the Flight Blu-Ray is top-notch in every regard (as the film was shot on the Red Epic camera, this is a direct digital port, and therefore there are no film-to-digital transfer issues). The quality of the digital cinematography is outstanding (it has a very rich, filmlike look), with great color, contrast, and, especially, detail. The fine detailing in the image is superb, bringing out every nuance of texture imaginable. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is also more than worthy, particularly during the harrowing plane crash sequence, which fully engulfs us in the sonic chaos. The low end is heavy and booming, but at the same time the mix is detailed enough that we can pick out unique sounds even during the most chaotic moments.|
|The Flight Blu-Ray includes three behind-the-scenes featurettes, all of which run between 8 and 10 minutes in length and includes on-set interviews with most of the cast and crew, including director Robert Zemeckis, screenwriter John Gatins, and stars Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and Kelly Reilly. “Origins of Flight” focuses on the writing of the screenplay, while “The Making of Flight” is a general behind-the-scenes featurette and “Anatomy of a Plane Crash” goes into the details of how the production simulated the plane crash using sections of a real plane mounted inside giant gimbals. Finally, the disc includes 14 minutes of excerpts from a post-screening Q&A with most of the cast and crew (minus Washington).|
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