Well, it’s my birthday weekend, and I have 3 other great looking movies to catch up on. Later I plan to see Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, and the best for last, SKYFALL! Last night I caught up on one movie that came out last week, which was the new Robert Zemekis film, Flight, starring Denzel Washington. I gotta say, it really was a very good film. It’s the first live action film Robert Zemekis has directed since 2000’s Castaway, and quite frankly, I’m happy he’s back. This movie is much different in tone than anything he’s ever done. For one thing, as R-rated movies go, it’s pretty hard core with frontal nudity, heavy alcohol and drug use, and in the aftermath of the plane crash, at least one decapitation. This film is not entirely what you suspect.
The premise of the movie is about a drug addicted alcoholic airline captain Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel), who after a night of heavy drinking and cocaine use…as well as during the flight he swipes two small vodka bottles and pours them into his orange juice…the plane malfunctions during the decent and goes into a dive. Whip pulls off a maneuver that’s so completely off the charts its considered an act of God…when he inverts the plane upside down during a dive in order to get it to level off. When he manages to turn the plane over to a normal flight path, the plane glides and then crashes, and out of 102 passengers on the plane, only 6 died in the crash. The next hour and forty minutes of the film deals with the aftermath, as this incredible plane crash becomes a media circus. There is controversy surrounding how in control of his senses Whip was when he pulled this unheard of maneuver out of nowhere. But we see from the very beginning he was completely intoxicated. After the crash, every trained pilot in simulators couldn’t seem to pull off what Whip was able to do. But the film doesn’t focus on the controversy as much as Whip’s serious struggle as an alcoholic and a drug addict.
When I say this movie is about an addict, I don’t mean to say that it turns into a Lifetime movie of the week. It does get into some pretty dark, serious drama, but there is also some great humor. One of the best character’s in the film is John Goodman’s Harling Mays, in a small role as Whip’s drug dealer friend. The scenes with him towards the end are hilariously funny and at the same time its a bit of a heartache because Harling only winds up encouraging Whip’s addiction more. But there are plenty of other funny observations about addiction that keep the movie from turning into a soap opera, which could have happened easily in the hands of a less talented director. You watch in horror in some moments as Whip turns into a train wreck, but I still found myself glued to what was happening.
There are many great performances in this, especially from Don Cheadle as Hugh Lang, the Chicago Attorney brought in by Whip’s union friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood). Towards the end there’s also a good performance by Melissa Leo as the prosecuting attorney Ellen Block, who does a pretty good job baiting Whip in the final moments.
More than that however, this is not a movie so much about dealing with addiction as it is about taking responsibility for your actions in life, especially living a life where you are honest and truthful with yourself and to those around you. Whip struggles with his ex wife and his estranged son, who stands up to his father to protect his mother, shouting back, “Who are you? Who are you?” There is also a very present spiritual side that’s spread throughout the film, because of the miracle plane landing, it’s considered an act of God. The plane crashes just outside of an extremely conservative church. Whip’s co pilot Ken Evan’s (Brian Geraghty), also happens to be a fundamentalist conservative Christian, who definitely holds resentment towards Whip after the crash. The spiritual themes in the film bring up the ideas of the act of God, destiny, and finding your way again. In a lot of ways, yes, this could be a poster film for groups like Alcoholic’s Anonymous, which definitely have its roots in religion. But at the same time the movie spends little time really delving into the scene where Whip visits an AA support group. In some ways I found similarities with this film and Zemekis’ other spiritually themed film, Contact. Flight is probably less likely to piss people off than the end of Contact, but I was not upset about the end of Contact, which in the end was not so much about whether we contact aliens, but about whether or not we are ready to take that next step. Or as the aliens say in Contact “Small steps, Ellie”. The same themes are present in Flight, just in a different way.
There’s one more thing I thought interesting to point out about this film, and to some it might be considered a plot convenience, but I thought it worth mentioning. The film does take place in the present, and during the flight on the plane, Whip actually steps out of the pilot cabin to the passengers to reassure them after a severely turbulent take off. There are other reasons for this scene as well so we can see him swipe the vodka bottles for his orange juice, but most people will probably point to this scene as an inaccuracy because in a post 9-11 world, its standard for the pilots to be locked in the flight cabin for the duration of the flight. I don’t think this was overlooked by Zemekis, but to me it did seem like a subtle message about change…and loosening up on the paranoia that 9-11 created. Don’t get me wrong, the unlocked pilot door is a plot convenience for the needs of the story, but it felt like a bit of a subtle nod to the audience to say something about allowing our country to return to normal again. I don’t want to read into it too much. But I found it interesting.
In the end, Flight is a very good film. It can be difficult to watch at times, but it’s difficult in a good way. There are plenty of great character actors and supporting players. There are also plenty of great comic moments. And last but not least, it’s a strong come back for Robert Zemekis, who I have missed as a live action director for a very long time.