By Chaz Lipp

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS CONTAINED WITHIN

Cutting right to the chase, Flight is a terrible movie that wastes a knockout performance by Denzel Washington. It should’ve been titled Drink. Despite what the trailers may have led us to believe, the film is not really about an airline crash. Sure, a jetliner crashes early in the film and that’s the catalyst for an investigation into the pilot’s sobriety. But we don’t ever see or hear anything about the investigation itself. Screenwriter John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis merely use the aviation disaster as a backdrop for an all-too-familiar (read: clichéd) tale of substance abuse.

I need to make this very clear: the remainder of this review is spoiler-laden and should not be read if you haven’t yet seen Flight or are not planning to see it at all. In order for me to outline why this movie fails (even more spectacularly than the jet piloted by Washington’s character), I have to discuss a variety of plot points better left discovered by the viewer.
Perhaps the biggest overriding problem with Flight is its quasi-religious theme, which is constantly evoked but never explored in any meaningful or coherent way. The film starts off promisingly. When we first meet Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington), he’s recovering from a night of binge drinking, cocaine snorting, and sex with stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velazquez). We also learn he’s divorced and estranged from his teenage son. Without enough time to sober up, he’s off to pilot a jetliner with 102 souls aboard. He continues to drink aboard the plane and subsequently spends most of the flight catnapping, much to the dismay of his co-pilot, Ken (Brian Geraghty). The plane experiences catastrophic mechanical failure and Whip springs into action. Using a variety of expertly-deployed techniques, he glides the aircraft to a crash landing in a field. The death toll is relatively low, with only six lives lost.

Was this series of events preordained by God? That’s an awfully big question, but Flightrecklessly asks it anyway. Maybe it’s even impossible to answer, but you’d think that the filmmakers could’ve at least taken a stance one way or the other. As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) looks more closely at the causes of the crash, characters right and left are heard asking, “Did Captain Whitaker land this plane, or was it the hand of God?” Or some variation on that general theme. Whip’s cocksure lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle) continuously talks of adding “act of God” to the official cause. The plane struck a church steeple during its final descent and now the church’s congregation meets at the crash site for daily prayer sessions. At the hospital where Whip is being treated for his injuries, a cancer patient launches into a monologue about blaming God for his illness. Whip’s co-pilot Ken turns out to be a Christian extremist who claims to have known immediately that his flight was doomed (more on this later). Philosophically and theologically, Flightis in way over its head.

The other big question posed by Flight is, should Whip be held responsible for the disaster solely due to his ingestion of intoxicants prior to (and during) the flight? It’s made inescapably clear that the plane’s failure was categorically not due to pilot error. The faulty jackscrew, which should have been replaced some 18 months prior due to wear on the threads, caused the loss of stability that sent the plane into an uncontrolled dive. Captain Whitaker saved nearly everyone on board due to his skill as a pilot.

Imagine this scenario instead (bear with me here): Whip is a sanitation worker who drives a garbage truck. The company he works for hasn’t properly maintained their vehicles. The brakes on Whips garbage truck fail, sending him on a collision course with a playground full of kids. Purely through instincts and quick thinking, Whip crashes his truck, sustains significant injuries, but manages to avoid colliding with any of the children. The bad guys are the garbage company people who were negligent in maintaining their trucks, correct? Whip is a hero for preserving public safety. But it turns out Whip had alcohol in his system. Should he be held responsible for endangering the public?

Maybe so, but my point is that Flight could’ve easily substituted Whip’s profession for any other and the resulting movie would’ve been essentially the same. The plane crash just looks good on screen and ensures moviegoers’ interest. The bulk of the movie is really nothing more than scenes of Whip trying to kick his habits cold turkey, only to give into his addiction yet again. There’s a tacked-on romantic interest in the form of a junkie-with-a-heart-of-gold (with perfect hair and teeth, incidentally), Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Nicole just happened to be OD’ing as Whip’s inverted plane passed overhead. Divine intervention? Maybe so, says the movie, since Whip takes this wounded spirit (she’s a photographer with the soul of an artist) under his wing, inspiring her to quit using. Meanwhile, the NTSB investigation soldiers forth without the audience ever learning anything about their findings until the hearing at the very end.

Remember that co-pilot Ken not only “knew” the flight was doomed, he could smell the alcohol on Whip. He even called his wife to tell her that God had planned the impending disaster and that it was out of his hands. Why the heck isn’t Ken standing trial for simply sitting by and not saying anything before the plane took off? What about Margaret (Tamara Tunie), a surviving stewardess who also privately admits she knew that Whip wasn’t fit to fly? Why are these people not at least subjected to scrutiny over withholding information that might’ve changed the course of events? Yes, Whip was drunk and high and shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car, let alone piloting a jet. But he still managed to commit an act of great heroism. Being under the influence was not actually a factor in this incident, yet the filmmakers seem determined to avoid closer examination of that interesting contradiction.

I haven’t even mentioned the jarring tonal shift that occurs whenever Whip’s drug dealing pal Harling (John Goodman) is onscreen. In a vague Big Lebowski riff, the bowling shirt-clad Harling appears as farcical comic relief in a film that wasn’t designed to accommodate such antics. At one key point near the film’s bogus climax, Harling is called in much like Winston Wolf, the clean-up man portrayed by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. And speaking of the bogus climax (I’m going to get very specific here), when Whip is asked for his “opinion” or whether the deceased stewardess Katerina was likely responsible for consuming vodka during the flight (two empty mini-bottles were found in the trash), why couldn’t Whip simply have said, “I have no opinion”? His personal opinion was irrelevant at such a proceeding. Instead, the question serves as the final catalyst for his big admission that, yes, he does have a drinking problem. This was a big, phony “Movie Moment” designed to elicit solemn respect from the audience as we realize that our flawed hero has taken that first big step towards recovery. Will he also begin to get to know the son he abandoned years ago? Of course he will, after all – he’s a new man now.

The reason to see Flight,if there is one, is Denzel Washington’s excellent performance. But I found myself incredibly frustrated that his great work was so thoroughly wasted by a stunted screenplay that fails to follow through on any of the ideas it flirts with. When the chief investigator Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), who we’re told throughout is ruthless in her pursuit of crash causes, is finally allowed to speak near the end, I was struck with the feeling that Flight could’ve been a much stronger film if we’d been given at least a peek at the job she does. I also wanted to know more about the airline owner who is more interested in his other finances and quick to place sole blame on Whip. I wanted to learn about the intricacies that go into the legal wrangling behind the scenes of such an accident. Why else center the story on the airline industry?
One final note on the whole “jackscrew failure” that ends up being revealed as the cause of the crash. This was, of course, loosely inspired by the real-life tragedy of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. That was the plane that went down off the coast of California in 2000, resulting in the death of all 88 passengers and crew members aboard. The investigation revealed that the aircraft crashed due to the failure of the horizontal stabilizer brought on by a worn jackscrew assembly. This event resulted in determined, extensive efforts to improve upon the existing jackscrew assemblies in order to prevent such a catastrophe from reoccurring. That was over a decade ago and the mechanical safety record of U.S.-based airlines in the years since speaks for itself. How utterly lazy and borderline offensive (to the airline industry) it is to reappropriate a very real tragedy – one that engineers worked to do everything within their power to ensure would not happen again – for an Oscar-baiting piece of hokum like Flight.
Photos: Paramount Pictures
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7 thoughts on “Movie Review: Robert Zemeckis’ Flight – They Should’ve Called it Drink

  1. a harsh review that fails to mention the great moments of cinematography in the film.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I don’t know about harsh, it’s my honest take on the movie. The cinematography was good, as any multi-million dollar Hollywood production should be. But I’m more interested in the story and the characters. No amount of technical expertise can overcome poor writing.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your review. Every scene was way longer than it had to be and was a chance to be more melodramatic than the last. If I wanted to watch a movie about addicts, I would watch Drugstore Cowboys. I think this movie would have worked better if they cut 45 minutes of it but still completely mismarketed.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Jstern. Yeah, Drugstore Cowboy, maybe Rush, Permanent Midnight, there’s a lot of ’em. The fact that they had Oscar winner Melissa Leo in what amounted to a cameo (as the chief crash investigator) makes me wonder if there was a whole other (better) movie that got left on the cutting room floor.

  5. I’m inclined to agree with most of this. However, I think there may be a slight misunderstanding of the “in your opinion…” climax in the investigation. First of all, why ask the question? As you note, surely his “opinion” is irrelevant here? But the investigator knows that Whip’s toxicology screen– legally inadmissible– does nevertheless almost certainly prove that it was him. She’s goading him. It’s a way of almost-but-not-quite forcing him to confess. Now, he could of course simply say he had no opinion. But then if he has no opinion, he’s *strongly* implying it had to be her (*someone* had to have drank the vodka…). And that he could not do, not even to save his own career and preserve his freedom. But yes, overall, many problems here that are easy to overlook thanks to some brilliant performances.

  6. D.N. – I do get what you’re saying, about the investigator goading Whip into admitting guilt. I guess I just didn’t buy that Whip would give into that. Everything we had seen from the man up to that point suggested, to me at least, that he would’ve declined to offer an opinion – regardless of why it implied about the deceased attendent.

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