By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Flight
FLIGHT (Thre and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Robert Zemeckis, 2012
Denzel Washington, as advertised, gives an extraordinary performance in Flight — a Robert Zemeckis movie about the limits and contradictions of heroism, the perils of celebrity, and the corrosive effects of lies and alcoholism. Its a very good film, at times an excellent one, and definite Oscar nomination material. It’s also a very welcome movie. Some of the show’s themes (like the ones above) are potentially rich and deep, and they’re more meaningful than what big-star, big-budget Hollywood movies usually give us. Flight flirts with melodrama, dances around with social messages, gives romance a quick hug, and sneaks outside for a necking session with heavy-duty action and adventure cinema, without ever totally committing to any of them.
Flight is also a very entertaining movie, and its very mutability and changeability — the way it hops from genre to genre, mood to mood, from high action and high entertainment to high seriousness, is a large part of what makes it so compellingly enjoyable. Flight has elements comparable to The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas or The Verdict, and elements that remind you of The Big Lebowski, and others that almost suggest an Indiana Jones movie. All of them are crucial to its overall effect.
Washington is at the core of the movie‘s strong appeal. He’s the kind of empathetic actor and charismatic movie star — adept at comedy or tragedy or drama and capable of playing it good or bad, raunchy or noble — who can handle a lot of different emotional colors and (I‘m tired of this word, by the way) layers. He and director Zemeckis, working from a script by writer-actor John Gatins (Real Steel) always keep their vehicle flying fast, if not always right-side-up. And Washington keeps it in the air. In Flight, he plays a keen, highly skilled but highly flawed commercial airline pilot and accidental hero in aviator shades, named Whip Whitaker — which is a name that sounds as it could have been invented for a ‘30s-‘40s Saturday afternoon movie serial hero, played by either Buster Crabbe, Reed Hadley or the young (very young) Duke Wayne.
Zemeckis and Gatins introduce us to their hybrid hero with a heart-stopping double whammy. They show Whip engaged in a morning lay-over bout of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (and booze), with a sexy flight attendant named Katerina (Nadine Velasquez), with the pilot (imminently due for his next flight out of Orlando), still drunk but “straightening himself out” with a snort of cocaine — then speeding off to take over the wheel of the plane, taking two slugs of vodka from the flight beverages, and sliding in beside his nervous co-pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who believes in God and the blood of the lamb, and whose faith will be sorely tested by what happens after the plane takes off.
What follows is one of the year’s great action sequences, a triumph of staging, special effects, editing and cinematography, and a synthesis of all of them, that reminds you that Zemeckis also made the Back to the Future Trilogy and Beowulf, and executed another crash in Castaway. It’s one of the ace-of-aces of all movie flight nightmares.
Action: The plane hits a pocket of extreme turbulence between Atlanta and Orlando, and it shakes and shudders and tips and dips and goes into what looks like a fatal, fatal dive. But Washington’s Whip, an ex-navy pilot with superb instincts, keeps cool, stays in control, flips the plane and flies it upside down (to stabilize it), and then flips it back upright and crash-lands it in a field near a church — shearing off part of the church’s steeple, while a bunch of the faithful watch and run around below. This amazing grace-under-pressure performance saves all but 6 of his 102 almost-sure-to-die-without-him passengers and crew and makes him an astonishing media hero in the category of pilot “Sully” Sullivan of the Hudson River incident.
Then comes one of the movie’s other layers: social and psychological problem drama: The Zinnemann/Lumet factor. Can you really have a hero, whose blood alcohol count at the time of his heroics, probably hit stratospheric intoxicant levels, even if you forget the cocaine? We soon discover that Whip is a full-blown alcoholic and has been for decades. We also veer into a pocket of wild comedy, thanks to John Goodman –who pops up, motor running hard as one of Whip’s best friends, his hula-shirted, pony-tailed, perpetual motion cocaine dealer Harling Mays. Goodman is wafted in on a wave of the Rolling Stones and “Sympathy for the Devil,” for a performance that’s a hoot and half and that reminds you (in a good way) of Goodman‘s manic vet in The Big Lebowski and his polite escaped con in Raising Arizona.
In other words, this is suddenly Coen Brothers territory, and Goodman is very funny. Since one or two of my colleagues have registered official qualms about the wisdom of pushing a funny cocaine dealer into a meaningful picture meant to move us (one not cleared for kids, by the way), I’d like to suggest that having a bad or morally flawed guy get laughs is not bad strategy (as witness Denzel himself in Training Day). Harling Mays is not meant as a role model, and audience members are hardly likely to take up cocaine dealing or addiction as professions after watching him and Whip — though they may possibly be moved to buy a tasteless Hawaiian shirt (or maybe one more Rolling Stones album).
Now another layer is revealed — trial thriller — with the arrival of Bruce Greenwood as ex-pilot buddy and union rep Charlie Anderson, and the always first-rate Don Cheadle as Whip’s dead-serious and devious lawyer Hugh Lang — whose first task is to bury that lab blood report, and who obviously disapproves of the man he’s been hired to save. Reeling in the wings, with a layer of romance, is the pretty local heroine-user Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, whose plot function is to supply a deceptive love interest and get Whip to an A. A. meeting, which he doesn’t like and skips. And Whip’s e-wife and son (Gabrielle Beauvais and Justin Martin) are there to let us know that Whip hadn’t been a particularly good father, even if 96 people owe him their lives.
So what kind of movie is Flight? (One might better ask, what kind of movie isn’t it?) Well, it isn’t a James Bond movie, though I wouldn’t really have been surprised if they’d shoe-horned Daniel Craig (or Liam Neeson) in, maybe as an expert witness. And it isn’t a Western or a horror-comedy or an animated cartoon — not that Zemeckis hasn’t explored those territories too.
One thing I like about Zemeckis (or several things actually) is that he’s willing to fly all over the map like this, jam all kinds of genres together, and fill his show with all kinds of “stuff,” as he puts it. In that omnivorous style and range of interests, he’s reminiscent of Frank Capra, who also made a movie called Flight (n 1929, with Ralph Graves, about Marine fliers). Like Capra, Zemeckis knows the value of versatility, of mixing the serious with the comic, of not getting stuck too long in one groove.
The film’s range is the key to its success. If you want to judge Flight purely as a drama about alcoholism and personal struggles with it, I’d say it’s not as sharp or convincing as the recent low budget drama Smashed, directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a drunk/teacher, not to mention Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas or Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe. But none of those films has a stupendous action sequence in mid-air. By shifting keys and moods so easily and constantly, Flight keeps us guessing, scrambles our responses. If it gets an Oscar or two — and it well might — it’ll be not just because Zemeckis tackled so many deep subjects, but because he kept them all so entertaining. And because audiences like Denzel Washington so much.
Washington is one of those movie stars who has such command of the audience, that he can alter a film’s whole trajectory with either a smile or a frown. Or a long thoughtful gaze. And, like many of the great post-war American movie stars of another generation — Bogart, Lancaster, Mitchum, Douglas, Brando, Newman –he’s equally adept at movie heroism or movie villainy, and many shades between. It isn’t easy for a big Hollywood movie star to keep a serious profile these days, what with the constant temptations to make big lucrative action movies, like the ridiculous but madly profitable Taken 2. But Washington is able to keep a vein of seriousness (or humor) in most of his action vehicles, like the Tony Scott runaway train movie Unstoppable, and to put just enough action or humor in his serious films, like this one.
Flight raises him to the heights, even as an edge of moral darkness opens up around Whip Whitaker’s world. Zemeckis’ picture is both entertaining and sometimes almost criminally exciting, as well as moving and disturbing. It’s not a great movie maybe, but it’s one made by a great moviemaker and a great movie star, with some first-rate people backing them up. It gives us both a wild ride and a touching human experience. Isn‘t that what we want from our moving pictures, sometimes all we can expect? Well, maybe not always. But that’s another layer.