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.
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.
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.