Monday, March 4, 2013

Flight - A Descent Into Hubris

T he year 2012 came and went, the elections are over and the Zombie Apocalypse, or worse, the fiscal cliff still haunts us.  In one of the last films of the year, Hollywood deemed it necessary to give us a lesson in choices to open our holiday season.  If you are looking for a review of the new Denzel Washington ('Man on Fire,' "The Book of Eli" film, I'll give you that and a bit more.  For openers, the MPAA rates this film ‘R' for a very good reason, this film is about a man whose moral compass is swinging somewhat out of control, like a plane without pitch control.  As just about everyone I know who talks about film has mentioned, this is director Robert Zemeckis's first live action film since 'Castaway' starring Tom Hanks back in 2000.  In the meantime, director Zemeckis has been working with some top animators to pull off films like 'The Polar Express.’  'Beowulf and 2009’s ‘A Christmas Carol.'  "Flight" is written by John Gatins (Real Steel 2011), and gives us a character study of a man who makes choices, that when seen by other characters in the film and the audience themselves, are clearly unwise, if not just downright wrong.  The character of Whip Whittaker is able to swagger away from his wrecks as if he blessed by some divine being.  ‘Flight’ is a study of hubris.

I am absolutely sure that the executives at Paramount have no reason to think that today's audience is looking for a moral lesson in choice and responsibility.  I am sure that they were looking for a film that would just make them millions of dollars taken directly from the moviegoers pockets.  However, 'Flight' is more than about money or greed; it is about pride, choices, and consequences.  Denzel plays probably one of the coolest characters in film today.  In 'The Book of Eli,' he was the humble servant of the Divine who, like the prophets of old wandered for many years on a spiritual journey to deliver the word of God to a place where that word can be heard by many.  In 'Man on Fire’, he is the tormented ex-CIA assassin out to redeem himself of the many sins of his past.  Washington's character pulls this off by sacrificing himself to save a young Dakota Fanning.  Probably the closest Denzel has come to the character of Captain 'Whip' Whitaker was that of Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling in ‘Courage Under Fire' back in 1996 with Meg Ryan.  The difference is obvious but subtle.  In 'Flight' Denzel is Captain 'Whip' Whittaker, the coolest (did I mention that before?), drunkest, highest S.O.B. that ever flew a commercial airplane.  John Goodman (who has been in just about everything) plays his too-hip-for-you 'friend/supplier/demon' and Bruce Greenwood (Start Trek - 2009) and Don Cheadle ('Iron Man 2,' 'Hotel Rwanda') play the team who are there to keep Washington's ass out of the fire.  Most people who come to see films like 'Flight' come because they saw the trailer where Denzel flies the airplane upside down.  Needless to say, what takes place in the remaining hour after the flight is just as riveting, The action is toned down, however, the acting, editing, and characters jump into high gear as we see how Whittaker, deals with the aftermath, his demons, and the NTSB inquiry into the days leading up to the crash.

Honnestly, Robert Zemeckis is obvious as he gives us musical cues to each character as they step onto the screen.  In some cases, one may wonder if he is a bit too condescending toward his audience, or, does he just want to make sure he gets his point across about the character.  Our antihero, Captain William 'Whip' Whitaker's thematic cue is 'Feelin' Alright' by Dave Mason from the time he was in Traffic, and sung by Joe Cocker.  The song not only plays well when Capt. Whitaker's swaggers into the cockpit after a night of partying with stewardess, Trina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez).  The lyrics hint at a man who is trapped and has a need to escape, and that man is Whitaker, and guess whom he needs to escape from?  Our captain has alcohol for breakfast and a coke chaser (read cocaine) to even himself out.  Arriving at the plane on a cold wet morning, he meets his co-pilot, Ken Evans played by Brian Geraghty ('The Hurt Locker,' 'Jarhead') as your typical Southern Baptist type Holy Roller.  Evans is clean cut and is put off by Whitaker's morning wake up routine of coffee, aspirin, and hits of oxygen.  Now for those of us who went through our twenties living our life on the edge -- this sounds perfectly normal.  People like this thrive on this type of lifestyle, they put on their shades and swagger into work and don't think twice about it - except that these people don't have 102 lives in their hands.

Actor/writer John Gatins ('Coach Carter,' 'Real Steel') has two storylines going during the first act.  The first, of course belongs to Whip and his adventures in the sky, the second belongs to Nicole (Kelly Reilly).  Nicole seems like your typical anorexic, tattooed, needle scarred, heroin addict.  Reilly's plays Nicole almost perfect in the sense, that she too like, Whip is trapped in a life filled with choices that are dragging her down.  We follow Nicole as she tracks down her next heroine score.  What Zemeckis shows us, is the stereotypical girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has some sense of morality.  Nicole, while begging for a hit of Heroine flatly turns down being in a porn film.  Nicole is messed up, but has some sense of morality.  While Nicole is shooting up some high-grade Afghanistan heroine, the Cowboy Junkies are heard in the background singing 'Sweet Jane.’  What Gatins and Zemeckis try to show us are two characters that are fated by their choices, and perhaps by a higher power to meet.  This is one of those scenes where Robert Zemeckis makes it painfully obvious as he shows the paramedics who are wheeling the overdosed Nicole out her apartment in a gurney as they, along with Nicole’s sleazy apartment manager take a second to look up into the sky to see Whitaker's plane is flying upside down.  In many ways, Robert Zemeckis spoon-feeds his audience details that are obvious to the most clueless viewer.  I find that insulting, however, because of the pace of the film, and the journey Whip, Nicole, and the audience are quickly taking, I will forgive the director for this.

Although Washington's Whitaker makes his own choices, he is not alone in making them. 'Flight' gives us several excellent, but brief, performance from John Goodman, as Whip's over the top drug dealer.  As Goodman's character -- Harling Mays -- saunters into the hospital telling the nurses that 'he is on list' while listening to, The Rolling Stone's 1968 classic 'Sympathy for the Devil.'  This song too, is very appropriate, because, like the devil, Mays doesn't cause Whitaker to make bad choices.  However, like Old Nick himself, he is there to ensure that those dark choices are made.  Goodman, in his several short appearances, also provides in this otherwise serious film, a touch of comedic relief.  What we find in 'Flight,' is a closer look at what we a moviegoers, and how filmmakers tend to gloss over - the aftermath of disaster.  I don't know how many main characters in the history of filmmaking have causes so much destruction in a film, and because they are the 'hero,' of the film, they walk away scot-free.  Think ‘Die Hard.’

Haling Mays is not Whitaker’s only enabler.  Bruce Greenwood serves as the pilot’s union representative, Charlie Anderson. Anderson informs Whitaker upon regaining consciousness in the hospital that essentially he has his back covered.  In entering into this relationship with Whip, he too enters the world as a co-conspirator in Denzel’s descent into deception.  Enter Don Cheadle as the lawyer brought in to get Whip out of the potential prison sentence for flying while impaired.  

While watching this film other flight disaster films also come to mind, such as ‘Alive,’ ‘Castaway,’ ‘Flight of the Phoenix, ‘Passengers,’ ‘Final Destination,’ etc. where the passengers struggle with trying to survive after the crash.  The difference here is that the person struggling to survive is the pilot himself.  There are many scenes where there is no action but intense conversations between, Greenwood, Washington and Cheadle volleying back and forth about right and wrong and Denzel always declaring himself the winner because he save 96 people out of 102.  Most people in today’s society would see Captain Whip Whitaker’s point of view, and there lies the problem.  In today’s society, being right seems to come down to a matter of opinion, and we root for Whip as he lies to himself.  We feel bored and annoyed as Whip attends an AA meeting with Nicole and has to listen to a guy talk about how he is an alcoholic.  We don’t care, we don’t want to hear him, we want to focus on how the hell Whip is going to stay out of jail.  Whip leaves the meeting with a look of annoyance on his face, goes off, and does what he always does… drinks to excess.  As William Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  For Whitaker, the road is a bumpy one.
Robert Zemeckis paces his film, giving us equal amounts of fast pace action with moments of thoughtful introspection, giving the audience a moment to reflect on Washington’s performance, and his choices.  The scenes are crisp, to the point and while giving the audience that moment to breathe and allow them to ask the question:  Would I have done that?

For the most part, ‘Flight’ is peppered by Rock and Roll classics like the ones already mentioned but also including another Rolling Stones hit ‘Gimme Shelter,’ Bill Withers’ ‘Ain't No Sunshine,’ Marvin Gaye;s "What's Going On," and trying to sum it all up with Johnny Lee Hooker’s  blues classic, ‘Never Get Out of These Blues Alive.’  The music is blatant but helpful in setting the tone of the scene and describes the mood accurately.  Or maybe, too accurately. 

My favorite scene comes near the end of the film when Whitaker is found in a hotel suite passed out and hung over right before he is supposed to testify at a NTSB hearing.  A hearing that Don Cheadle’s character has gone through enormous effort in trying to prepare both the NTSB head investigator and Whitaker himself into steering the board into declaring the whole tragedy an ‘Act of God.’  What Cheadle and Greenwood come up is insane, wrong, and very funny.  Denzel’s performance during the hearing is worth watching as you see a man who is totally struggling with his conscience, his integrity, his demons, and the truth.  Flight is worth watching, if not for the story, but for Denzel Washington’s performance.  Like a man with both a devil and an angel on his shoulder, he tries to ignore both and go his own way only finding that he cannot serve two masters.  ‘Flight’ is a little over an hour and a half, and is a great film to rent or own.

Movie Data

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Year: 2012
Staring: Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producer(s): Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Rating: R
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: 11/2/2012

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