Flight: A Tragic Nosedive Into Meandering Cliche

*Note: this review contains some spoilers, as it’s impossible to discuss why the film doesn’t work without sharing some details to fully explain these shortcomings*

Around the halfway mark of Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ unfortunate return to live-action directing, I began making a mental log in my head of cliches of the alcoholism genre and groaning as I put checkmarks along the entire list. However, my problem wasn’t exclusively with the tropes of this particular archetype, as alcoholism is certainly a subject matter worthy of multiple stories and Denzel Washington is a formidable actor capable of elevating any tried material. However, when you balance the intimate details of this portrait of alcoholism with the large-scale celebrity trial and the ceaseless (and ultimately pointless) religious symbolism, you’re left with a sprawling shapeless melodrama that contains no momentum, no structure, and no support for Denzel’s performance. There were even multiple moments where my audience laughed with delight as Denzel got drunk and high– not the point Zemeckis was trying to make, I’d wager. Ultimately, I left the theater thinking about all of the better films about alcoholism made in film history. Flight never takes off.

Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) wakes up after a night of heavy partying with flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), chugs some liquor, does a line of coke, and heads to work– he’s the pilot of a flight from Orlando to Atlanta that morning. His co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) notices something’s wrong with him but says nothing; the head of the crew, Margaret (Tamara Tunie), has known Whip for years and accepts the fact that Whitaker functions while drunk. When a mechanical error on the plane causes it to nosedive out of control, Whitaker rolls the plane over in order to glide it to the ground safely. He wakes up in a hospital the next day to discover that while a few people died on the flight, he saved the overwhelming majority of people on board, making him a national hero. However, the head of the pilot’s union (Bruce Greenwood) and a criminal lawyer (Don Cheadle) both soon confront him with a hard reality: he had blood taken after the crash, and people will soon know he was flying under the influence, an offense punishable by prison time. Meanwhile, he meets and takes a liking to a local junkie (Kelly Reilly), who is attempting to turn her life around after an overdose. Whip, on the other hand, continues to lie to others and himself about his problem.

The lengths an alcoholic will go to in order to convince others that he or she is in control– this would absolutely be a worthy topic to explore a film, and the movie is at its best when we’re watching Denzel go through these motions subtly. The first time Whip tells himself he’s sobering up, he pours out all his liquor and orders only an orange juice at a bar… until someone asks him, “You don’t want anything in it?” Watch his response as he reluctantly falls off the wagon. This cycle is absolutely the stuff of compelling drama, and I take zero issue with Denzel’s performance or the topic at hand. My first problem is that we’ve seen most all of this before, but with sharper focus, subtler delivery, more exquisite intimacy. My mind keeps going back to Will Ferrell’s Everything Must Go, which also gets unnecessarily melodramatic at the end, but at least gives us a different spin on the alcoholic figure: we see a unique relationship between himself and a child, and we see a symbolic yet relatively subtle activity for him to pursue with his yard sale. Here, there’s nothing new– he yells at his friends, he yells at his girlfriend, he yells at his kid, they all end up turning their back on him due to his lies. The scene with his ex-wife and child in particular feels lifted from the script of a Lifetime Original Movie, full of tears and posturing and overacting on nearly all counts.

Subtlety isn’t really Robert Zemeckis’ directorial style– at all. Not that we should expect it from the director of Forrest Gump, but when Denzel wakes up to begin the film, and his alarm clock plays “Alcohol” by Barenaked Ladies, that’s a huge groaner right off the bat. He then follows it immediately with a heroin sequence as “Under The Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Sweet Jane” by Velvet Underground (a cover) blare in the background– perhaps two of the most famous songs about heroin ever written. The pop music choices continue to be glaringly on-the-nose throughout the film, which combine with the alcohol cliches to create one overripe melodrama. The heroin junkie storyline is bizarrely woven into the structure as well, getting large amounts of screen time in the first forty-five minutes, before becoming increasingly irrelevant in the proceedings– by the time we realize she is essentially wholly expendable, her story has already added twenty to thirty minutes of run time. Did we need to see her entire backstory in detail before Denzel meets her? Zemeckis also manages to layer on some thick religious symbolism, which manages to be on-the-nose while also utterly perplexing. Between multiple conversations in which Denzel laughs at the idea of God, the plane which knocks only the cross off of a church steeple, and plenty of shots of crucifixes and references to Jesus, it’s abundantly clear that Zemeckis wants us to be thinking about God… for some reason. There’s no clear conclusion to all of this religious set-up, nor is there an evident point to it all. It’s cheap implementation of religion to imply depth or symbolic meaning when the film never digs deeper than the surface.

The circumstances surrounding Whip’s inevitable moment of clarity are unique, to be sure, but after the plane crash itself, they seem inherently uncinematic. The film contains roughly ninety minutes of sitting around preparing mentally for a deposition, which allows Denzel to show off some nifty drunk acting, but doesn’t contain much dramatic conflict. They prove that Denzel’s positive tests for alcohol and coke could be flawed, they show the plane was damaged and poorly kept, and they have multiple pilots do sober simulations, all of which result in failure. The inescapable conclusion is that only a drunk Whip Whitaker could have landed the plane the way he did and saved those lives. This isn’t even a point of contention for over half of the movie. That half of the movie, we simply wait for the deposition, when something inevitably will go wrong. Sure enough, hours beforehand, Whip gets horribly drunk, so in order to sober him up for his questioning, John Goodman loads him up with coke in the movie’s funniest scene– strangely timed, as his falling off the wagon should be a moment of great sadness.

He then walks to the deposition, like a classic Denzel hero, wearing sunglasses, accompanied by a jaunty on-the-nose pop song (“Feelin Alright” by Joe Cocker, if I recall). My audience roared with approval. I was perplexed: is his addiction bad or good? For a movie with so many Lifetime Original Movie alcoholism cliches, it sure doesn’t seem to condemn alcoholism. Without alcoholism, he couldn’t have landed the plane and saved the lives. Without alcoholism, he doesn’t party with the very naked and very attractive Nadine Velazquez. Without alcoholism, we wouldn’t have encountered John Goodman, the funniest character in the film. Without cocaine, he couldn’t have rallied for the deposition in time. His co-pilot insists God landed the plane… but if God was involved and it couldn’t have been landed without a drunk Denzel, does that mean that God wanted Denzel drunk? Nothing indicates that religious intervention occurred in the film’s reality, nor does anything indicate that Denzel overcomes problems with the help of religion. So what’s the point of it all? Does the film have anything more to say than “alcoholism is bad,” which it really doesn’t say well due to all the positive situations the audience sees Denzel in due to alcohol? I don’t recall thinking alcoholism was awesome during Everything Must Go. Or Leaving Las Vegas. Or Days of Wine and Roses. Or Crazy Heart. Or Rachel Getting Married. Or…

By the end, he shares that he’s finally sober… yet he’s also in prison. This is accompanied by a groaner of a line that underscores the painful obviousness of the ending, in which he declares although he’s now in prison… *dramatic pause*… he’s finally free. Denzel is capable of selling pretty much any type of line to me, yet by this point in the film, I was past being impressed with Denzel’s ability to keep me barely interested. Worst of all, the film uses this line in order to fast forward through the road to recovery– I get the sense that the road to recovery is also filled with inherent struggle and dramatic conflict, and since much of the “drunk” scenes seemed to delight my audience, I was hoping we could witness some painful sobering reality to help tilt the scales in case some of the crowd missed the point that alcoholism is horrifying. No such luck. Alcoholism is a rich topic for cinema, but it can’t be the reason for the film’s existence. It can be a characteristic of a character, a conflict in a storyline, a defining feature of a relationship, but it’s not enough for a film to simply go through the familiar beats of the alcoholism film cliche anymore, regardless of who the lead actor is. Throw that together with the confused symbolism, the stagnant pace, and Zemeckis’s hamfisted choices, and you get an opportunity that is– pardon the pun– wasted.

~ by russellhainline on November 5, 2012.

2 Responses to “Flight: A Tragic Nosedive Into Meandering Cliche”

  1. I had high hopes with the early compelling scenes (for example, the very moving conversations in the hospital room and stairwell). But, I agree with you that it devolved into melodrama.

  2. […] Flight: A Tragic Nosedive Into Meandering Cliche (thepasswordisswordfish.com) […]

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