MOVIE REVIEW: FLIGHT (2012)
By Michael Arruda
I’ll have two vodkas with that beer, thank you.
In FLIGHT (2012), the latest film by acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis, Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who by all accounts is at the top of his game, as skilled and experienced as any pilot out there, with the exception of one nasty little secret: he’s an alcoholic.
When FLIGHT opens, Whip has just spent a wild night drinking with his girlfriend Katerina (Nadine Velazquez). Katerina works as a flight attendant for the same airline that employs Whip, and while it may be okay for a flight attendant to work after a heavy night of drinking, the same can’t be said for an airline pilot. To get himself primed to fly, Whip snorts cocaine. Still not satisfied, he drinks while flying the plane, all the while doing his best to hide this behavior from everyone around him in an attempt to make them believe that everything is normal.
During the flight, there is a major malfunction with the steering mechanism on the plane, and Whip performs a miraculous maneuver involving flying the plane upside down. He is able to crash land in a field, and there is only a minor loss of life, four passengers and two crew members. By all accounts, Whip is hailed as a hero. One of the crew members killed is his girlfriend Katerina.
When investigators discover high alcohol and drug levels in Whip’s blood, his buddy and union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) brings in a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who promises to make the test results inadmissible in court. All Whip has to do is refrain from drinking, and both he and the airline should be in good shape. This is easier said than done, because Whip is an alcoholic. He has no control over his drinking, and worse yet, he doesn’t recognize he has a drinking problem.
Whip becomes involved with a young woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering drug addict, and Nicole tries to help Whip stay on the straight and narrow, but Whip is living in denial and refuses to acknowledge his problem or let anyone help him, which does not bode well for his future or the airline’s.
The major problem I had with FLIGHT is I didn’t like Denzel Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker. I liked the initial conflict, that Whip is an alcoholic who’s drunk while piloting the plane, yet he’s the one responsible for saving the plane and the lives of the passengers. I thought this was going to be the story of his coming around too late—sure, he was drunk, but that’s not why the plane crashed, and now that he’s turned himself around, he’s going to have to struggle to prove that this is the case, that his drunken condition isn’t what crashed the plane, that in fact, he’s the guy who saved the plane.
But this isn’t what happens, because Whip is an alcoholic, and his story, like most accounts of alcoholics, is an ugly one. This ultimately is what FLIGHT is all about, the story of an alcoholic living in denial, intent on ignoring everyone around him, not interested in changing his situation. Obviously, we hope there’s a moment where Whip sees the light. The problem with FLIGHT is this moment arrives way too late in the game for it to matter much.
And for a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis , the guy who brought us the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies and FORREST GUMP (1994), as well as the recent BEOWULF (2007) which I liked, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009) which I didn’t like, FLIGHT doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of striking visuals. The flight sequence is “okay,” but it wasn’t as intense as I expected it to be. I thought a similar plane crash sequence in THE GREY (2012) was much more riveting than the events depicted here.
That’s another problem I had with this movie. It continually played below expectations. FLIGHT has “should have been better” written all over it.
The acting is fine, and Denzel Washington is very good as Whip, even though the character really isn’t likable. I realize alcoholics aren’t supposed to be fun characters, but the real story here should have been about redemption, but unfortunately, we’re made to wait and wait before anything even resembling redemption occurs. In fact, Whip actually grows more unlikable as the movie goes along
I did like Kelly Reilly as Nicole, the woman who tries to help Whip control his alcohol addiction. Unlike Whip, she grows more agreeable as the story progresses.
Tamara Tunie is also very good as the head flight attendant on the flight, Margaret, and both Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle deliver satisfying performances. However, in Cheadle’s case, I’ve seen him act so much better in other things, that he was almost disappointing here. Speaking of disappointment, I was a little dissatisfied with John Goodman’s small role as Whip’s flaky friend and drug provider Harling Mays. I found Mays rather cliché. Goodman gets to play things over the top, but I definitely found him more satisfying as makeup man John Chambers in ARGO (2012).
The screenplay by John Gatins is okay, but it’s certainly not great. There just seems to be something missing in this story. The biggest problem I had with it is the payoff comes way too late in the movie. Gatins also wrote the science fiction-actioner REAL STEEL (2011), another film that performed below expectations, but for different reasons. That one just became silly.
FLIGHT struggles to make its point, which is people with drinking problems need to admit it first before they can take control of their lives. Instead of getting to the heart of the matter immediately, it presents its story in roundabout way, meandering through the elaborate tale of the plane crash, and spending way too much time on the ugliness of Whip’s condition.
What should have been a simple story—the story of an alcoholic in denial who lies about everything and doesn’t care how many people—friends, family, co-workers- he hurts in the process—taken to higher levels, remains grounded in peripheral details that detract rather than inspire. The question that surfaces is what will it take for Whip to admit he has a drinking problem? Crashing a plane? His girlfriend’s death? His new girlfriend’s rejection? The anger of his ex-wife and teenage son? The prospect of spending years in prison? The answer is apparently none of these things.
I also didn’t get the “act of God” theme which surfaces throughout the movie, as various characters refer to events in the film as an act of God. It was an act of God that the plane malfunctioned. It was an act of God that Whip was the man at the helm. This is mentioned a few times, yet nothing really is made of it, in terms of plot points. Also, the religious characters in this film act like they’re high on another drug, caffeine. When the co-pilot’s wife yells for Whip to accept “Jesus!” it’s startling! I wish movies would do a better job of portraying religious people, who for the most part, don’t sound like evangelicals when they speak.
The best scene in the movie comes early on and is a conversation in a hospital hallway between Whip, Nicole, and a cancer patient. There’s a strong feeling of truth and honesty among these three characters, and this scene really resonates. It’s a telling moment in a movie that doesn’t seem to have many others.
Ultimately, there’s nothing really all that exciting or inspiring about FLIGHT. It’s a movie that surprisingly doesn’t soar.
I give it two knives.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives FLIGHT ~ two knives!