Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking shoes up the same problems as his last couple of pre-motion capture pictures; a tasty premise, but what do you do with it?
Flight could have been a great movie. The first thirty minutes are as good as anything in any film released in 2012. Zemeckis has commented that beginning with a huge action sequence didn’t matter, since the personal story that follows is so powerful. But the problem is, the rest of the movie only fully engages sporadically. And when it does, it’s all about courtroom theatrics; not with the character arc it’s trying to justify.
The problem, as ever, is cliché, and in this case more particularly that of Hollywood moralism. Having set up a magnificent anti-hero, the script by (recovering addict) John Gatins sets on a course of sub-Leaving Las Vegas indulgence before finding a point of redemption that everyone can get behind. This is what mainstream movies with “edge” have come to; in order to justify the payload of an out-of-control character, one who doesn’t conform to the status quo, he must be rigorously punished (even at his own hand) in order to show the audience how they should behave. Don’t trust your viewer to work out that he’s in the wrong; have it spelled out by his own realisation. Movies used to be restricted by the edict that the criminal couldn’t be seen to win, no matter how likeable (see The Italian Job, or The Lavender Hill Mob), but the late ’60s and early ’70s saw a brief trend of trusting the audience to judge a character’s foibles and flaws for themselves, whether the movie served up retribution and repentance or not.
Flight struggles between this impulse to credit its audience with intelligence and another to treat them with kid gloves. It ends up flailing as it ultimately chooses to kowtow to the mainstream of presumed acceptability. The idea of an intoxicated pilot (Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington) who pulls off a feat of incredible skill and then has his heroic status called into question, is a compelling one and Gatins deserves enormous credit for it. But where he goes wrong is making him an addict. As much as the movie appears to be refraining from taking the moral high ground at the outset, it ends up having to depict Whip as extremely fucked up. How might the scenario have been more nuanced if he was just an occasional party animal, no doubt lacking an appropriate compass as regards his responsibilities, but not someone we could all point at as being completely out-of-control.
The midsection of the film drags us through Whip’s states of stupor to the point of disinterest. He’s no longer an intriguing character but a means for Denzel to show off his drunk acting. This kind of thing quickly became a bore when Nic Cage was going off on one to Oscar glory. No doubt, substance abuse isn’t something that the movies should extol. But showing every abuser as inveterately doomed is a false play. Particularly when we know Whip has been behaving like this for a good decade or more without incident. Suddenly it has to hit home to tell us why he’s so screwed up. There has to be a more insightful way to address such a subject than adopting polar extremes. But few Hollywood movies have been able to tackle addiction without hyperbole. It takes an indie picture like Drugstore Cowboy (now getting on for a quarter of a century old) to say something insightful about the mundanity of the lifestyle.
Flight’s intentions are worthy, but every other scene or supporting character hits a wall of over-familiarity. Zemeckis soundtracks the movie with every unsubtle tune he can think of (outdoing Killing them Softly), and requires his characters to indulge in worn-out theatrics on how they either will (John Goodman’s entertaining but only-in-movies pusher man) or won’t (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly) endorse Whip’s lifestyle. The performances are strong all-round, but the cast can only do so much to undercut how rote they all are. James Badge Dale has a memorable scene as a stairwell cancer patient, but it’s the point where the film begins to drift into overstatement. When Denzel starts knocking back a 1.5 litre bottle of Smirnoff in his car, realisation dawns that Zemeckis mush have insisted that a 1 litre bottle wouldn’t be enough to tell us that addiction is bad.
Zemeckis is a technically masterful filmmaker but, like sometime mentor Steven Spielberg, his blind spot is the script department. Maybe he should go back to writing his own, which is where his greatest artistic successes lay. He’s made a film that looks double the budget it is, and it is exquisitely crafted, but his characters hit every single obvious note imaginable. It’s not brave to have a character continually fall of the wagon and reject offers of help if life-affirming awareness is finally reached (the last scene is particularly trite). Wouldn’t it be braver, or more interesting, to end at a point where we the audience knows Whip is wrong but he is let off the hook? That’s what a good ’70s movie would have done.