Flight: The road more traveled by
The flight in Flight is a triumph. I've known about the sequence — about most of the movie's plot details, in fact — for months, and it still shoved me into the cockpit and locked the door. And it's not just the inversion, or the wing shearing off the church's bell hutch (the Whitaker POV on that shot and its almost ceremonial lack of sound chilled me to the bone), not just the big moments. Little things like the resolutely rated-G exclamations of his co-pilot, "oh no!", "oh gee!", or the passengers too focused on freaking out to puke until close to impact — they get it to the truth. And the gorgeous, deeply scary cell-phone footage of the worshippers in their white robes arriving at the plane like converging angels is a beaut.
And then a completely different movie begins.
The first movie is about Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), exhausted, still drunk, "evened out" with pot and cocaine, hot-shotting a commercial flight through nasty weather, then having to land the plane in a field when a domino chain of mechanical malfunctions reduces it to a glider. Of the "102 souls" on board, only six perish, but Whitaker is still in serious dutch thanks to his evident substance-abuse problem. Enter his old friend and union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and the lawyer he's retained to address Whitaker's possible criminal charges (Don Cheadle). I wanted to see that movie: the NTSB investigation, the story the evidence would tell, the unpacking of the idea that perhaps Whitaker's intoxication helped him perform his duties by giving him liquid/powdered courage.
The second movie, the one we spend two hours with, is an overlong, didactic slog compliments of Bill W. and Hollywood's allergy to complexity, undertaken during adrenaline withdrawal and scored with thudding literalness. How thudding? Junkie basket-case turned girlfriend in recovery Nicole (Kelly Reilly, who very nearly gets the gloppy pudding of her character to set) injects herself with heroin while "Sweet Jane" is playing. Is that even legal? Can't you get arrested for operating editing software with a blood corn level of 0.8?
Washington is fantastic, however. In one scene, he's in the nave at a memorial service, "commiserating" with the flight attendant who survived (Tamara Tunie). What he's actually doing is obscuring the pressure he's putting on her to say on the record that he wasn't fucked up, with a classic addict's octopus ink puff of self-pity. If you've ever had an addict in your life, you've had a variation on that conversation, where part of you is like, please fuck off please, and another part can't believe anyone can get that far down a hole that he can't hear himself, and Washington hits it dead on, the charming and functional glimpses of sunlight you get through the thicket of junkie bullshit. He is pitiable; he is, incredibly, unfuckable. It's his greatest performance.
And it's in the service of a script that has nothing new to say about addiction, denial, or recovery, that brokers a peace with Whitaker and his son in a prison visiting area, watched closely by a choir of clichés. For every moment like the wonderfully timed and endless hold on the bottle of mini-bar vodka, followed by the swoosh of Whitaker's hand coming back for it, you get ten others that reduce, re-use, and recycle AA shares from other movies, or cuddly up rock bottom. (As one friend in recovery sighed, "Hitting bottom' doesn't happen in a roomful of people. That's kind of why it's the bottom.")
The second movie is not per se boring, and if Washington were not owning Whitaker in every frame, I'd have bailed out after an hour, but you really can't start a movie with a plane crash that involving and intense, then decide it's not about that and tell this other story. Either it's about the flight, and you follow the investigation and watch Whitaker's slowly unraveling story from the side; or it's about the bottle, and you don't show the flight at all, just give us bits and pieces as Whitaker's spiraling down, then climbing back up. This is a bait-and-switch that spends too much time watching Whitaker debase himself, then turns around and paints Harling Mays (John Goodman, doing his thing) as a witty problem-solver. The line about the stroke mags is a good one. Dude's still a dealer.
That this is nominated for a writing Oscar is insane to me (Gatins wrote Summer Catch, which explains a lot; little of it is welcome information). That Washington probably can't smell gold from where he is is just sad. His performance is the movie's equivalent of, well, Whitaker's. It's just really good, risky but not showy. It's almost enough.
Tags: Bruce Greenwood Denzel Washington dial-a-cliche Don Cheadle Flight John Gatins John Goodman Kelly Reilly movies soundtrack cues for newborns Summer Catch Tamara Tunie