Sunday, February 17, 2013

Oscars 2013: Flight

Flight (U.S., 2012) directed by Robert Zemeckis, 139 minutes
Nominated for Two Oscars 
Best Actor In a Leading Role
Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

When I think of Zemeckis I think of past tepid offerings such as Polar Express or the abominable Forrest Gump that brought Zemeckis so much fame (no, I am not a fan of either despite the immense popularity of the latter) or the spectacularly successful and enjoyable Back to the Future franchise in the 1980s.

I wouldn't ordinarily associate this director with a film about a substance abusing, alcoholic pilot with a face like Denzel Washington's, who, somehow, saves a plane from completely breaking apart and narrowly avoids killing all its passengers in Flight.

One October day in 2011, much like any other day, Captain William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes in a hotel room with a flight attendant after a night of sex, boozing and very little sleep. After a jolt of coke to straighten himself up, he boards SouthJet flight 227 to Atlanta. It is a discomfiting film-going experience to see the usually heroic, handsome Washington, some twenty pounds overweight with a face ravaged by drink and sleeplessness,  but it is an emotionally affecting one in this drama.

While the co-pilot flies the airplane, Whip mixes vodka in his orange juice and takes a nap. From the flight attendant Margaret's reaction, this is just another "ordinary day" for Whip as he later claims. Just before the final descent into Atlanta, the aircraft goes into a steep, uncontrolled dive. The controls have failed and after a hair-raising descent where a wing is sheared off the plane, Whip crash-lands into a field - with shockingly few casualties - four passengers and two crew members.

The turbulent flight and crash are frighteningly real - with passengers and crew sometimes flung from their seats and being suspended upside down when Whip tries to gain control of the plane and arrest the descent.

In the hospital with relatively minor injuries, considering the severity of the crash, Whip is greeted by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a friend now representing the airline's pilots union. Ninety six of 102 people on board were saved but there were serious casualties. Katerina, the flight attendant whom Whip was with the night before is dead, and Evans, the young co-pilot, is in a medically induced coma and will never walk again.

Later in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a pretty, sometime porn actress/masseuse and aspiring photographer recovering from a  heroin overdose. To avoid the intense media scrutiny that the crash has elicited, Whip drives to his late father's now defunct crop dusting farm, with a little help from his drug dealer Harling (John Goodman) to make it through the day.

Whip soon meets with an attorney, Hugh Lang (a slitheringly charming Don Cheadle), who advises him that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) performed a toxicology screen in the hospital while he was unconscious that revealed Whip was legally drunk during the flight. Whip is facing a possible prison sentence for manslaughter for the four passengers who died if it is proven that he was drunk during the flight and caused the crash.

Whip seeks out Nicole at her apartment, who is being physically terrorized by the super for skipping out on her lease. Whip offers to let her stay at the farm with him. Nicole tries to stay clean, attends AA meetings and gets a low-paying, legit job, while Whip, despite his promises, continues to drink and she eventually leaves him.

Kelly Reilly as Nicole, beautiful and believable, is but a paper thin cut out doll with very little personality and fewer lines in the film. She is but one of a long line of beautiful, damaged women in Hollywood films who act as foils to the tortured hero. Not only is it unfair to the actress but intensely boring to the viewer.

When the media surrounds the farmhouse and Whip pays an unpleasant, drunken visit to his ex-wife and teenage son's home, the police are called. He eventually begs Charlie to permit him to stay with him, promising that he will not drink before the NTSB hearing that is within two weeks.

Washington's performance is largely subdued and effective as the unhappy, functioning alcoholic Whitaker - moving smoothly from quietly charming the media with the aura of the benighted hero, or consoling grieving flight staff, then quickly turning ugly and abusive to those around him when his wishes are defied or challenged.

But Zemekis is heavy handed in dictating the mood of the film, playing the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" when Goodman arrives with the cocaine or Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" when Whip is high. We don't need this underlined by the music; the acting and the script are both excellent enough that we don't require that sort of emotional manipulation.

Whip is checked into a guarded hotel room to keep him sober before the hearing in the morning. Although his room has been stripped of alcohol, Whip discovers that the door to the adjoining room is open and finds the alcohol in the mini-bar. He is found passed out, bloodied and drunk in the bathroom by Hugh and Charlie. Harling, beckoned by the panicky duo, brings him coke to prepare him for the hearing.

At the hearing, the lead NTSB investigator Block (Melissa Leo) reveals that a damaged jackscrew in the elevator assembly was the cause of the plane's crash. It appears that Whip will escape responsibility but the investigator raises the issue that two empty bottle of vodka were found in the trash on the plane. As all the toxicology screens were clear for the crew except for Katrina and Whip (and Whip's has been discounted on technical grounds) - logically one or both of them had consumed the alcohol.

Whip has the choice of claiming responsibility or leaving the deceased Katrina to assume blame for the alcohol. I won't reveal the ending but this is Denzel Washington, after all; he may behave like a bastard throughout the film but there is always a core of integrity beneath the grit which is what makes most of his performances so irresistible and so easily cast in the heroic mold in most of his roles.  
Lucky, but underutilized, Kelly Reilly as Nicole in Flight

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