Today we wind down our weeks of New York Film Festival coverage with Nick PInkerton’s look at Robert Zemeckis’s return to live-action movies: Flight.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screened Sunday, Oct. 14th
More than a few viewers who saw this year’s New York Film Festival opener Life of Pi were put in mind of Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 Cast Away–another sort of Robinson Crusoe story featuring a protagonist stranded with only a non-sentient, proper-named companion for company: Bengal tiger “Richard Parker” in Ang Lee’s film, a volleyball named “Wilson” in Zemeckis’s. There is a sort of symmetry, then, in the NYFF having had Zemeckis’s first live-action outing in a dozen years as its closing night film.
At the press conference after the Walter Reade screening, scriptwriter John Gatins stated that he had begun the script that would become Flight in 1999, though of course it is impossible to watch his film without thinking of the Hudson River landing of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in 2009. (It also suggests that Gatins, screenwriter of Real Steel and Coach Carter, wrote this before he had coarsened his talents.) Gatins added that Flight was “Born out of my two greatest fears–drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash,” from whence comes the character of alcoholic commercial airline pilot Captain William “Whip” Whitaker.
Rather cruelly for we tipplers in the fifth estate, the Flight press screening began at 9 AM on a Sunday, and some in the audience might well have related to an opening which has Capt. Whitaker (Denzel Washington) waking in a bottle-strewn hotel room outside the Orlando airport–if not to the gorgeous stewardess who’s fishing her thong from behind a recliner as he awakes. Denzel looks fully fifty-something here, heavy and sluggardly.
Much the worse for the wear after his long weekend and a contentious phone conversation with the inevitable ex-wife about the son he never sees, the Captain requires a line of coke to get back up and into the cockpit for a morning flight to Atlanta. Once in the air, he surreptitiously mixes himself a leveling-off screwdriver at the same time as he’s addressing his passengers over the PA–another day at work.
It’s not Whitaker’s shabby state, however, but a profound all-systems mechanical failure that puts his plane into a sudden free-fall as it approaches its destination. Like Cast Away–and Life of Pi—Flight‘s narrative is set in motion by a wreck, a foundering, but this time there’s a sort of genius behind the wheel. Drawing on a lifetime of flying experience, Whitaker improvises a miraculous plan that successfully slows his vessel’s hopeless descent, at one point flying it upside-down, easing it back rightside-up into an eerily calm glide, and finally clipping the steeple off of a rural Pentecostal church before bringing craft and passengers down, more-or-less safely, in a field.
Ninety-six of the one hundred-two souls listed in the plane’s manifest survive, and though Whitaker is blameless for the malfunctions, accountability is still demanded. In order to hush-up a medical report of Whitaker’s potent blood-alcohol level at the crash scene and to coach him through the inevitable follow-up investigation, a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), comes in to do damage-control at the behest of the pilot’s union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a well-meaning old Navy flyer buddy of Whitaker’s. Whitaker’s dealer, Harling, is the rep’s opposite number, another vet and another enabler who hasn’t the guise of official respectability, played with dirtbag bonhomie by John Goodman.
For everyone who is on Whitaker’s side, only Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering junkie who he meets at the hospital and shacks up with, evinces any desire to see him get better rather than merely get off the hook. It’s never a small task to make good compelling, however, and Reilly’s function as avatar of holistic health is the film’s least compelling element. Zemeckis is more successful when dealing with the various types of misdirected concern that go into covering Whitaker’s ass, particularly in an antic scene where Lang and Anderson have to order in Harling and his medicaments to help get the ever self-sabotaging, hangover-comatose Whitaker ready to take the stand before the investigating committee. The jargon that Harling uses, discussing the fine art of “leveling out” which any highly-functioning habitual abuser needs to learn, will shortly be mirrored in Whitaker’s expert testimony on the stand–inverting the plane in freefall, he says, “arrested the descent, allowed the aircraft to level off…”
More than acting as a DC-10-sized metaphor, this association reinforces the film’s spirit of ambivalence–what if Whitaker accomplished his miracle not wholly in spite of but partly thanks to his drinking, through a career alcoholic’s dead-nerved grace under pressure? (God is almost literally Whitaker’s co-pilot–he’s teamed with an evangelical rookie–but his partner’s panicky prayers do very little good in a nosedive.) Any narrative that wants to talk seriously about the decision to dry up requires this sense of a trade-off between items of uncertain value, which Flight achieves with admirable discretion–it’s found in the way that the oft-used words “fly” and “lie” blur together, in the way that Whitaker, ceasing to do one, loses the right to do the other.
Whitaker’s crisis of conscience leads him, finally, to a Dostoevskian act of self-imposed exile which can be seen as his only available avenue for redemption–or as a new kind of copping out. When we catch up with the sober Whitaker, he’s far removed from the natty, glamorous, uniformed figure who settled into the cockpit: His hair’s gone gray and lusterless; he is grounded in two senses of the word. He has, as the saying goes, got his life back–but one has to wonder if he has much more of it to live. (Nick Pinkerton)
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