Thursday, November 15, 2012


Flying Inverted
Cracking the Whip

It's been years since Robert Zemeckis made a live-action film (the last being Cast Away, all the way back in 2000, the time being taken up with his three motion capture animated films) and this one, Flight, is an interesting choice, quite unlike anything the director has done, but falling in line with his other films about people being left up in the air about fundamental choices in their lives.  

Captain Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot on cruise-control.  Unfortunately, it's a path that will ultimately crash and burn.  An alcoholic and coke-head, he'll do a layover with a stew (in this instance, Nadine Velazquez), get wasted, and then to get himself #1 on the runway will do a line, so he can do the "pilot walk" to the cabin—all confidence and casualness for the launching of "souls" into the wild-blue yonder.

Even before he takes off, Whip is flying.  But his nonchalance and bon homie gets him through, even through a difficult take-off through low turbulence.  He pushes the plane, but clears the clouds early and restores order to the flight, then settles back to cadge some booze samples, smuggle them into his orange juice and catch some sleep.  He wakes up just in time for a crisis: the plane bangs, then goes into a steep dive that terrifies the passengers and crew (and me) and merely gives Whip a much needed shot of adrenaline.  The only way he can take the plane from pile-driving into the ground is to bank it until he's flying upside down, then skimming the Earth until he can find a clear place to land, then cork-screw right side up and ditching for a landing.

Six people die, two on the crew.  Whittaker wakes up in the hospital with torn ligaments in his knees, lacerations around his eye and no idea how he got there.  First visitor is the pilot's union rep (Bruce Greenwood), then the NTSB who are all "just the facts" and deferential.  Next is Whip's "connection" (John Goodman), a Dr. Feelgood who waltzes in (to the tune of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil;" Whip's is "Feelin' Alright"), tells Whip he's a hero, that reporters are hunting him, and criticizes the doctors' choice in pain-killers: "Amateur night!"  All Whip can think about is getting out, but it's not as simple as that.  He's under investigation for the crash (his simple response is "it was a broken plane"), has been lawyered up with an attorney (Don Cheadle) who doesn't like him, thinks he's a creep, but is going to do his job, and on top of it all, Whittaker must deal with a pissed-off ex-wife and a son who doesn't know him, and has no intentions to.

In the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly, you'll remember her as Dr. Watson's wife in the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies), who's recovering from an overdose and not in a good way.  Whip is attracted—she's female and weak, which seem to be all that's required—and he whisks her away to his family's small farm and failed crop-dusting business in rural Georgia.  He's already ditched all the alcohol, but after a couple days, he's back in the bag, drinking himself into oblivion while Nicole goes to AA meetings.  Whip visits, too, but when things get personal, he takes off.

Washington is brilliant in all of this, showing both the pilot's strengths and pitiful weaknesses.  His scenes of bleary drunkenness feel real and incomprehensible, and one watches his constant crashing after attempts to bring himself up are painful to watch.  The balance of the film is Whip's cart-wheeling from sober to sloshed, his best instincts superseded by his addictions—a man in constant denial, addicted to lying (and pulling himself out of a crisis) and risk-taking as much as to the hooch.  It's a rough ride to be a part of and even observe, Whittaker constantly pulling himself out of his dives, then going into another tailspin, and you just know the only time he'll level off is when he crashes.  The parallels between flight and addiction are obvious (how far can you push yourself before everything breaks and if you survive, how much further can you push?) and audiences who gripe about all the action being in the first 20 minutes, may not realize that they're watching a parallel course throughout the rest of the movie, only far more personal, and maybe (hopefully) not as relatable.  

It is a tough, emotional roller-coaster to be a part of, but everything is of a piece.  At one point, Cheadle's lawyer puts it succinctly: "Death demands responsibility," and responsibility is one thing Whittaker has never known.  The old Irwin Allen disaster movie posters used to scream "Who Will Survive?" The same applies here, even if the audience-grabbing disaster only occurs at the beginning, and we white-knuckle it to see who'll surface from the rubble.  This is a smart, troubling, painful movie to watch.  But, you can't turn away, either in horror or fascination.

Flight is a Full-Price Ticket.

Whip Whittaker's sobering flight is just the first leg on the itinerary.

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