Thursday, November 8, 2012


A Man And His Conscience, Flying Beneath The Radar

Denzel Washington as Captain Whit "Whip" Whittaker in Robert Zemeckis's drama "Flight".
Paramount Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, November 8, 2012

It's not fun to fly these days.  Travel is stressful.  You have to await potential strip-search by machines before you get to unwind with a drink at a duty free area prior to takeoff.  So how about traveling pilots?  They have the responsibility of safely flying plane loads of people from one place to another.  Lives are in their hands.  So what's a quick shot of, say, vodka, to take the pressure off?  In Robert Zemeckis' latest film "Flight", self-reckoning is the biggest obstacle a character has to face, not a fierce storm that affects a nail-biting flight from Orlando to Atlanta. 

Captain Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) is an excellent pilot.  He drinks more than a little.  Whip is seen early on in bed with a co-worker he'll meet again in an hour aboard the 80-minute flight.  Casual and confident, Whip rides through the eye of a severe monsoon storm.  (Why is a plane flying through one in the first place?)  All hell breaks loose soon after, in one of the most intense and realistic flight sequences I've seen on film.  The fallout only just begins.  Lawyers come forth.  Toxicology reports are challenged as truth serum. 

As a drama "Flight" is the kind of Hollywood film that recalls the entertaining character-driven fare of the 1970s, Hollywood's last great era of adult storytelling drama ("Chinatown", "The Godfather", "The Conversation", to name a few).  "Flight" isn't always strong as a story despite some solid screenwriting by John Gatins but is a strong film where it counts: in the moving performance of Mr. Washington and in its themes of morality and equilibrium -- both literally and figuratively -- that Whip has to wrestle with.  The stability and mechanics of the plane Whip flies (and by extension, the lives he saves) is less at issue than the politics of salvation, be they spiritual, an act of God or via a crisis of conscience.

"Flight" is about trying to wipe clean a slate that gets dirtier with every wipe.  How does one deal with being labeled a "hero" for saving lives, when deep down heroism truly means coming clean about who you are as a person?  Whip tries to "fly away" from himself, and various characters around him are like air-traffic controllers, for better or worse, trying to guide Whip to an appropriate landing spot in his life.  Whip wrestles with them all, but most of all with himself. 

Sure to be Oscar-nominated in January for his fine work here, Mr. Washington gives Whip more nuance and range than I've seen in the actor's characters in more than a decade.  He manifests the tormented identity of Whip, a troubled man, in such a humane, touching and painful manner -- and to palpable, physical, psychological and compelling effect.  It's riveting to witness the moral contortions and epiphanies Whip experiences. 

At this stage of his career Mr. Washington is playing film characters with a sense of borrowed time but brave invincibility, albeit in flawed circumstances.  Earlier this year he was a rogue government operative in "Safe House" and in "Flight", a tense, philosophical and roller-coaster trip of the human heart, he's less likable though more relatable.  Whip is a self-aware deluder, one pre-dating his pilot days, and a scene featuring his stance next to a single-engine plane highlights the gulf between the truth and his aspirations.  It's a humbling image.

Whether it's the long-time colleague superbly played by Bruce Greenwood, the fast-talking quick-picker-upper drug guru played by John Goodman (a funny but more problematic character that freezes Mr. Zemeckis' film in its attempt at comic relief) or the cool, upright by-the-numbers lawyer (Don Cheadle) -- each of these male characters operate on C.Y.A. time.  All are well-meaning but too much of a security blanket allowing Whip to bask recklessly in self-denial, an uncomfortable place for him to live. 

"Flight" uneasily adjoins its male characters with a love story featuring troubled addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but that story takes a while to weave its way into the film's structure.  While the love story becomes a good exploration of shaky souls in need, the build-up of Ms. Reilly's well-acted character and her intersection into Mr. Zemeckis' film initially run incongruously, filled with needless distraction, until it delicately settles into the narrative.  Mr. Zemeckis approaches Mr. Gatins' script with good intentions, and even with occasional distractions almost always hits the mark.

Indeed, "Flight" wrestles with itself; on the one hand it's a film imbued with the frisky comic nimbleness of Mr. Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump", with Whip sometimes slipping out of unclean situations with the dexterity and oblivious manner suited for an addict, yet at other times "Flight" takes on some of the serious contemplation of a few minutes of the director's "Cast Away", at least in the varied dialogue about faith in the director's new film.  Both films featured plane crashes, but "Flight" percolates more as a thought-provoking film about rights, wrongs and but-fors.  Two wrongs don't make a right, but heroes try to, even in the face of super-human miracles.  It may take force majeure and elixir to imperil and save many lives but in the process such large scale acts can save the life of one person.

In the final analysis, "Flight" illustrates and parodies modern-day American society's relentless self-medication and instant gratification.  In any pickle a quick fix may be achieved by a character or two asked to lie, obfuscate and rarely reflect.  The sole antidote to the anesthetizing is Nicole, who could be the most redeeming character of all.

Also with: Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, James Badge Dale, Conor O'Neill.

"Flight" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.  The film's running time is two hours and 17 minutes.  

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW