Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

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We here at SOC do our best to mark our outlooks upon the filmic landscape with something like accuracy and precision, but some things do trip us up. For instace, having spent a decade complaining about the direction of Robert Zemeckis’ career, it occurred to me only when sitting in the theater waiting for Flight to begin that the last time I’d actually seen a new film of his was a whopping fifteen years ago (Contact). It’s true that I felt comfortable deriding a misdirection hinted at by Forrest Gump and his ten-year preoccupation with Motion Capture, my opinion of which remains extremely low. But perhaps I’d been unfair. What’s not really in dispute, meanwhile, is that the cheaply made, quickly produced Flight marks a radical change of pace for the director — and can I be informed enough to say that it is, in at least many ways, a more than welcome one? Not that the movie is anything magnificent — it contains brilliant things, but its script by John Gatins is a fairly silly bit of populist moralizing, and it’s no easier to determine what attracted the once acerbic filmmaker to its MOR earnestness than it is to figure out what drove him to make Death Becomes Her. The narrative that swallowed up a fine writer-director’s career to render him a safely neutered stylist remains unchanged.

However, there’s something to be said for the very populism that drenches Flight with a kind of grownup sentimentalism. It’s an old-fashioned film, specifically in line with The Man with the Golden Arm and The Days of Wine and Roses and especially The Lost Weekend, Hollywood’s premier statements upon addiction — the sort of thing audiences talk back to and can telegraph a few yards ahead, yet somehow they don’t mind. Zemeckis’ greatest virtue here is in refusing to hold back from the story’s pathos and despair, which lend it a bracingly direct rawness; we seldom remember what great utility studio product can have at its best, but here we are. It’s pulp, it’s an afterschool special, all that shit, but its trashy unpretentiousness lets it sing. It might be obvious and simplistic but it never once panders or condescends.

Much has been made of this being Zemeckis’ first R-rated film since Used Cars, a movie so exceptionally smart and incendiary it can trip you up to remember it even came from the same man who laid Gump in our laps, but a more accurate barometer is how it makes up the difference between his own filmmaking ideals and those of his mentor, Steven Spielberg. Though I can’t make any grand statements about the whiz-bang effectiveness of The Polar Express and its cursed ilk, Flight has a streak of both realism and sincerity that sets it broadly apart. It’s a human film, containing a stronger touch of warmth than I can recall seeing out of him, save perhaps in the romantic scenes of Back to the Future Part III or the few calm moments in I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As a character study, this is an exceptional film because it allows its central figure — pilot Whip Whitaker, whose hard drinking and coke habits unravel his life after he rescues a doomed aircraft — to own his assholery and excesses but never to become a demon or a caricature. Gatins’ story may say little of consequence, but its compassion for its characters is profound: not just Whip but Kelly Reilly’s overdose victim, James Badge Dale’s cigarette-bumming cancer patient, Tamara Tunie’s concerned flight attendant.

Whip, nevertheless, is the audience’s instrument for both identification and periodic recoiling, and Denzel Washington’s performance in the role carries the movie. It’s one of the best acting turns I’ve seen in a mainstream film in this decade — controlled and full of energy and verve but also tragic, claustrophobic, he nails everything about the part and elevates it immeasurably. The partnership of actor and director can’t be overlooked, either — hard to imagine any director doing more with less than Zemeckis does in the excruciating, spacious, beautifully detailed suspense sequence in which Whip discovers an unlocked door and a passage to an unprecedented bender, choreographed in the simple act of grabbing hold of a single bottle of liquor in the night. If you remember Flight for nothing else, remember this scene and how it sets your heart to pounding.

But you will remember other things, of course. There’s the already-celebrated stairway sequence that sets three characters, two important to the narrative and one not, at a quiet crossroads with the world swirling around them, the very sort of astute and calmly meditative moment Hollywood’s famous for avoiding. But more than anything, there is the bravura setpiece that deceptively opens the film: drunk and high off his nutter, Whip runs into an equipment malfunction in midair and, retaining perfect calm and poise, makes the best out of the situation that he possibly can, never faltering even as he urges Tunie’s frantic stewardess to record a message of love into the black box — as Mike d’Angelo noted, a shot of pathos that gorgeously streaks across an already heart-pounding sequence. Zemeckis appears to have lost none of his grip on thriller filmmaking, if he was ever even this good to begin with. The clarity and cleanliness of this enormously complex action scene is such that, for one thing, you feel as exhausted afterward as though you were there (more so even than in United 93, since the time is so much more compressed) and secondly, you can’t help feeling that the somber and highly adult melodrama that follows is unworthy of its grace.

While I appreciate the well-meaning drift of Gatins’ point, it’s frustrating that he prattles on so long as to approach various interesting angles on an extremely familiar story only to finally avoid all of them, in favor of some eyeroll Say Anything… finale about “really knowing” your “father,” or some such nonsense. The AA commentary in Days of Wine and Roses was gross enough in 1962; these days, it seems frustratingly quaint, particularly given how adept Gatins is at steering us into an ambiguous juggling of sympathies. We are on Mr. Washington’s side, obviously, yet we also deeply want him to lose his case, to be stripped of his license, because we know the Truth. If Zemeckis and Gatins mean for us to be challenged by the weight of this burden of maturity, it forces the film into one of two corners: either it becomes about the movie itself and its power of persuasion, or it becomes, well, a lecture. After a narrow escape and a direct moral challenge before the NTSB, we choose the lecture route. Is there anything wrong with a propaganda film in 2012? No, not really, especially when, yeah, addiction is bad, and alcoholics need help. Not sure we needed a movie to tell us all that, but fine.

All the same, the simplicity of Flight‘s message is troubling by virtue of nothing more than the fact that it thus seems like an awful lot of work to tell everyone something they already know. Up to its finale, which is “satisfying” in a classicist sense, it doesn’t really falter in any important manner. The relationship stuff is fine, even somewhat believable, and far more convincingly illustrative of the evolving enabler and sufferer relationship than the incomprehensible such behaviors exhibited in Lost Weekend (but more pat, and thus less disturbing, than the mutually destructive couple in Wine and Roses). The suspense about the looming NTSB hearing is interesting, tackling much minutiae that plane crash nerds are likely to appreciate (I did). But after the stunning minifridge scene, the film has a chance to walk out on a fascinatingly irresponsible and morally ambiguous note… and of course, refuses to. This is Hollywood, after all. Whip is challenged by his faith to a lover who perished in the crash and cannot incriminate her to save his skin. But if he had, if he’d walked away and returned to his life as before and the world was none the wiser, I think the film might have said something new and deeply scary about both movie-world sympathies and the sacrificial trust inherent to a corporate-friendly government such as ours. But no, and I understand why that is — but in a sense, when a system attempts to bend itself backward to protect one of its own who transgressed and lucked out and then the conclusion is for he alone to receive punishment, doesn’t that seem incomplete and deeply alarming? I can’t help but think of Quiz Show after the subcommittee investigations produce nothing more than a ruination of Charles van Doren’s life — “I thought we’d get television.”

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