Sunday, November 18, 2012

Flight / **** (R)

Whip Whitaker: Denzel Washington
Nicole: Kelly Reilly
Hugh Lang: Don Cheadle
Charlie Anderson: Bruce Greenwood
Ken Evans: Brian Geraghty
Harling Mays: John Goodman
Margaret Thomason: Tamara Tunie
Ellen Block: Melissa Leo

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by John Gatins. Running time: 138 min. Rated R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence).

“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’/ for a little while”
                                    —Jeff Bridges, “Fallin & Flying”, from the movie “Crazy Heart”

I wanted to start my review of the new film “Flight” by relating how much we all fear being in a plane crash, but plane crashes aren’t really what this movie is about. It begins with a spectacular plane crash, one of the most harrowing I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. It’s one that has you sucking the wind in through your teeth and grabbing on to both armrests as if you can somehow stop what it unfolding in front of you. The truly amazing accomplishment of this movie, however, is the fact that it continues to inspire this behavior when its main character is on the ground and bounding through his life on a self-destructive course like no other seen on screen before.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitman, an airline pilot who pulls off the impossible when he is able to crash land a commercial airliner with a severe equipment failure safely in an open field. Only six of the one hundred plus people on board are killed in the accident. Yet this incident still opens a wound in Whip’s life that will never heal until he’s willing to acknowledge it.

Whip is an alcoholic. That’s putting it mildly. This is a man who’s always lit. He was lit the day of the crash, although it is pretty clear it did not play a role in the accident. This man is a grand example of an addict whose life is at the mercy of his substance abuse. His family has all left him. His closest friend is his drug dealer, who obviously is uncomfortable doing things that friends do for each other.  His life has already crash landed and the results were devastating. This is his aftermath.

Substance abuse has been handled well in many films before. We’ve seen the powerful impact an addict’s behavior can have on their life and the lives around them in excellent films like “Clean and Sober”, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “Duane Hopwood”, “Rachel Getting Married” and “Crazy Heart”, but none of those stories were told on the grand scale with which this film approaches its subject. They’re much more intimate portraits. Most of those character studies follow the disease’s entire progress. In this movie the disease has already done its irreversible damage on Whip’s personal life, and now it threatens to end his career. Most substance abuse stories have a devastating tragedy in them to signify rock bottom. In this one, the abuser performs what some see as a miraculous act. Whip’s sobriety becomes a matter of public record with an incident that is very much in the public eye. This is a difficult position to put an addict in. An addict’s greatest gift is the lie, which becomes harder to pull off when the entire country is looking at you.

Washington approaches his role with all of that power we’ve seen from every role of his. He seems dangerous, more so to himself than others. He makes us fear for him. We want him to walk out of this whole thing unscathed, and yet that would not be best for him. Washington somehow finds that strange balance where the audience is rooting for him, yet realizes the necessity that he must fall. He’s not a mean drunk, but he is an ugly one. There’s a moment where we think he makes a choice to end his addiction. Actually there are several. Even to the last we, like the loved ones of any addict, retain our hope that this time it will work. Yet it is Washington’s decisive nature that ends our illusions each time, just as his sympathetic nature has us rooting for him.

While in the hospital, Whip meets another addict. Nicole is a heroine addict who overdoses the same day as the crash. The pilot’s union also hires a lawyer, Hugh Lang, to bury the evidence of Whip’s intoxication on the day of the incident. Whip’s crew are not stupid people either, they’ve spent enough time with him to catch on to his tricks. There’s a great question about Whip’s substance abuse versus the skill with which he gets the plane to the safest place possible. Whip’s continuing abuse after the incident calls into question the morality of letting his condition on that day slide. It also seems to spark something of an awakening in Nicole about her own abuse.

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins use all of these elements to suggest that there may be some greater issues at stake here than a typical story of an addict’s collapse and possible redemption. The notion of God’s hand in the fates of the people on that plane is approached from a few different angles by several different perspectives. Was it God or the pilot’s skill that saved the plane? Did this happen so Whip and Nicole could be saved from their self-destructive natures? Would God kill six people in order to save two?

The filmmakers wisely don’t take these questions all the way through to their conclusions. Whether God or fate or some greater power may have intervened is not their point. In the end, it comes down to one simple statement. “I’m an addict.” That is the only thing that matters to an addict. They may search out faith, but without that one statement nothing ever changes for the addict. This movie is smart enough to know that.

Zemeckis has spent the past decade creating and directing CGI animated features like “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf”, and “A Christmas Carol”. His work in this area of filmmaking has been revolutionary, but it’s nice to see him tackling real life again. This is the most serious film I’ve seen from the Oscar-winning director and the most accomplished. Zemeckis is a spectacle maker, which might seem to be the wrong direction for such a personal story as substance abuse; but his approach makes sense. It’s the spectacle of the drunk that alienates his loved ones. It’s that spectacle that places the addict in the position where lies become necessity. The lies themselves are a theatrical production for the addict. Wouldn’t it take a real showman like Zemeckis to tell an addicts’ story?

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