Tuesday, January 22, 2013

‘Flight’ (2012) directed by Robert Zemeckis

In the astonishingly intense opening sequences of ‘Flight’ a passenger jet loaded with 102 people is plummeting nose first towards the rapidly approaching ground.  The co-pilot is screaming, the head air stewardess is weeping, instruments all around the cockpit are angrily sounding out tinny warning beeps, the very body of the plane seems to be crying out and on top of all this there’s the incessant whistle of the wind.  At the centre of this nightmare sits Captain Whit Whitaker (Denzel Washington), calm as a zen monk.  He’s steadily relaying nonsensical gobbledegook air traffic information down the radio as he coolly puts his flying skills to the ultimate test.

He’s the perfect pilot, and he's also sleep-deprived, drunk and mildly coked up.  Despite his condition, or tantalisingly, because of his condition, he’s able to stay calm enough to land the plane in an open field with 96 survivors and 6 fatalities.  If it wasn’t for him everyone on the plane would have died, we later learn that in simulation no other pilot could fly their way out of that situation.  Laid out bruised and battered in a hospital bed, Whip is a hero, but has also become a pawn between huge forces.  The airline wants to blame the manufacturer of the plane for mechanical failure, and the manufacturer wants to blame the airline for pilot error.

Denzel Washington as 'Captain Whip Whitaker'
It’s a hell of a set-up, not least because Captain Whip Whitaker is a self destructive, depressive alcoholic.  Denzel Washington is an utter powerhouse here, his performance so personal he feels like a loved one struggling with addiction.   We inwardly cheer him on when he takes a shaky step towards sobriety and are disappointed when he slides backwards.  Whip is not a particularly pleasant character in his depression, my opinion of him ranged from admiring his audacity to utter exasperation. Much of the dramatic power of 'Flight' is derived from this swinging emotional pendulum, one moment you sympathise with this tragic and grimly realistic figure of man, the next you find yourself incredulous at his selfishness and arrogance.  Throughout this emotional gamut he's an utterly compelling figure, a complex mixture of good and evil.  And, lurking at the back of your mind, despite his heroic flying skills, you find yourself questioning just how culpable he might be for the crash occurring in the first place, and anyway, flying a passenger jet drunk is kinda sorta hugely irresponsible.... right?

As events progress we realise that Whip is heading towards a moral event horizon, one that we implicitly understand will be his downfall if he crosses it.  Physically Washington is an imposing presence, grumpy, heavy built and fierce.  It's bulldoggish the way his face hangs, like a handsome boxer who’s taken a few serious whacks to the face yet refuses to fall to the canvas.  In many ways he’s got much in common with the doomed plane of the opening sequences, plummeting towards rock bottom with near impossible odds of recovery.

The script, by 'Real Steel' writer John Gatins is good material, and Washington brings out the best in it.  He’s ably supported by a great supporting cast, among them a fiercely disapproving yet ultra-professional turn from Don Cheadle.  John Goodman gets a memorable role as a friendly yet highly strung drug dealer cast very much in the mould of Walter Sobchak from ‘The Big Lebowski’.  Goodman is great, but his cartoonish presence feels a bit tonally out of step, and considering he’s enabling the very behaviour that’s destroying Whip, it’s questionable as to whether we should like the guy so much.

The biggest supporting role, goes to Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a woman battling her own addictions.  As Whip wrestles with the plane directly above her apartment, she’s ODing on some extremely potent heroin.  Nicole provides a neat counterpoint to Whip’s downward spiral of addiction, someone who has faced up to their problem and is taking serious steps to move on with her life.  But in comparison to Washington’s richly textured performance Reilly’s ends up feeling very slight.  Despite some promising opening scenes, Nicole quickly becomes a vehicle to make a point with rather than as a character in her own right.  As a result, she disappointingly vanishes two thirds of the way through the film, never to return.

Kelly Reilly as 'Nicole'
This is Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000s ‘Castaway’, the last decade or so being wasted on a series of failed uncanny valley CG experiments like ‘The Polar Express’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’.  It might sound harsh, but I think it’s accurate because on watching ‘Flight’ it’s clear that Zemeckis is wasted in an entirely computer generated world.  'Flight' is jampacked full of tiny, careful details that demonstrate a seriousness and care about his craft.  All the CG special effects in the world aren't even close to being nearly as emotionally hard-hitting as the blood stained tear that rolls down Washington’s face as he learns about the fatalities on his fateful flight.  It’s a small yet visceral moment that showcases the precision with which Zemeckis constructs his world.

This attention to detail is perhaps most apparent in Whip’s  father’s house in the countryside, his hideaway from the press attention of the outside world.  Purely through outstanding set design we learn all about our characters, and particularly Whip’s relationship with his father.  I loved the detail of there being a new, flat screen television perched on top of a huge boxy, wooden 1960s black and white television.  It’s almost a blink and you’ll miss it detail, but manages to encapsulate the way that Whip lives in the shadow of his war hero father, unconsciously living his life on foundations laid out by someone long dead.

With Washington and Zemeckis firing on all cylinders it’s a bit disappointing that the film runs out of steam towards the end.  It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when it happens, but the film shifts gears from an individual’s examination of a struggle with alcoholism into a societal one.  It’s annoying because ‘Flight’ was doing a great job of subtly giving us an important lesson, and it's diluted by the sudden onset of preachiness towards the end.  The film is so narratively strong that we don’t need to have the message spelled out in a saccharine ‘lesson of the week’ monologue.  It’s a real shame that ‘Flight’ ends on such a bum note, because practically all of what comes before it is great cinema. 

***/ *****

'Flight' is on general release from February 1st.

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