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NYFF Review - 'Flight' Has Enough Realism & Spectacle To Satisfy Mainstreamers

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 14, 2012 at 5:37PM

In Flight, Denzel Washington stars as Captain Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot who miraculously crash lands a plane, saving nearly all 102 passengers onboard the flight. Afterward, Whip is hailed as a hero; however, as more is learned about Whip, and the crash landing, more questions than answers arise as to who or what was really responsible, and what exactly happened to and on that plane.
4
FLight

In Flight, Denzel Washington stars as Captain Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot who miraculously crash lands a plane, saving nearly all 102 passengers onboard the flight. Afterward, Whip is hailed as a hero; however, as more is learned about Whip, and the crash landing, more questions than answers arise as to who or what was really responsible, and what exactly happened to and on that plane.

I tend to view Hollywood studio movies through a different lens than I do independently-financed (Stateside or foreign) movies. My expectations are adjusted to match each *standard* based on what I've been fed by both over the years, since I started really watching movies. You'd think it would be opposite, but I actually go into Hollywood studio movies with lower expectations than I do with the latter. The former might cost far more to produce, but the latter are usually more soul-enriching (for me anyway), and tend to be more fearless, take more risks (whether technical or within the narrative), push the proverbial envelope further, and just aren't necessarily bound to some specific list of criteria.

For a Hollywood studio of this caliber (the level of star power involved, the spectacle of it all), tackling the particular issue it does, Flight is a good movie. It will probably do its job with its target mainstream audience - they'll be entertained, and moved by the story, the performances, the swelling soundtrack that instructs them on what emotion to feel at specific moments, the happy ending, etc - and they'll leave the theater feeling like the experience they had was very worthwhile. They'll talk about it for a bit afterward, and then tell their friends to go see what they believe to be is a riveting drama about one man's struggles to overcome his demons.

If this were a non-Hollywood studio movie, there'd likely be a lot less spectacle, and the drama would've had more weight to it; it probably would've been more gritty, grimy, depressing, with a bit more *realism,* minus the happy ending.

I also considered what Flight could've been in the hands of one of the handful of exciting South Korean directors who've only recently started to gain notoriety here in the USA.

Yes, I know - these are all stereotypes of Hollywood versus indie/foreign movies; but stereotypes aren't necessarily untrue. 

However, it's a good studio movie, and I think most audiences will be very pleased.

The film strides the line between glamorizing drug and alcohol addiction and discouraging it. There's a levity to it that made me feel a bit uncomfortable, given the gravity of the subject matter, knowing that there are countless real life human beings who are struggling with addiction every single day; many who have died and continue to die from one addiction or another.

But I understand the need to make the lead protagonist likable. It's important that the audience empathize and not entirely loathe or be turned off by the protagonist, because it'll make the film a more challenging pill to swallow; especially when he unapologetically makes mistake after mistake, fully aware of how serious of a predicament he's in (one that could mean the end of his life as he knows it), which I found frustrating. But the right kind of frustration as I'd guess it would be in real life, when dealing with an addict who you're rooting for to heal, but who continues to do some invariable, seemingly stupid, self-destructive things that only deepen the hole, and annoy you. Inevitably, you'd likely want to get as far away from this person as possible, as some in Whitaker's life have already done (namely his wife and son), and continue to do.

And I understand that some humor is necessary to add some balance - some of it provided by John Goodman's enabler character (actually, in some ways I'd say his key supporters were enablers), as the film's resident comic relief, and Denzel himself, as a man who drinks himself into oblivion, and then snorts cocaine to wake himself up the next morning - a functioning addict.

We talk about realism, but we don't really want that in our cinema - especially in a Hollywood studio movie with millions of dollars on the line. We live with enough harsh reality already, and movies are supposed to be our escape. Repeat ticket sales likely won't be as high otherwise.

As you'd expect, Denzel Washington is solid in his performance. I believed him, despite the usual Denzel ticks and all. He plays a man with two very different faces - the charismatic hero pilot to the public, and the damaged alcoholic and druggie in private, whose life starts to unravel, as it becomes harder and harder to continue to keep the private face hidden from the public.

There's an essential moral ambiguity in the character that I think will challenge audiences. I say essential because I think that particular aspect of the narrative is what helps separate it from what you'd traditionally expect from a Hollywood studio movie of its ilk. Washington plays a complex character - one who performs an unbelievable feat that saves the lives of 96 perfect strangers, but who is also temperamental and unpredictable (thanks to his addictions) who, ironically, does everything he can to push away those who are close to him, and who are trying to help him. You like and applaud him for his unbelievable act of heroism, which happens very early in the film, and spend the next 2/3s of the movie trying to reconcile that almost God-like figure (by all accounts, he accomplishes something which could not have been accomplished by anyone else), with the terribly flawed, self-destructive human being who gets exposed during the remainder of the film.

But there's an existing likability to Denzel Washington with audiences; he traditionally plays the good guy, who wants to do the right thing; even on the rare occasion that he plays the bad guy, or a character whose motivations aren't so transparent, it's still tough not to like him. He's the always-affable, charismatic Denzel Washington, not just the actor - the star; and any director casting him in any role should realize the pros and cons of that. There's a certain baggage that comes with *star power.* It makes it even more challenging for them to completely disappear into a role. 

However, his performance is engaging, and I'd be surprised if he's not on the short list of Best Actor Academy Award nominees. I don't know if he'd win; but I expect a nomination for the role.

Despite the fact that 2 of the film's major players are black men, race is of no consequence in Flight. In fact, it's never brought up. Not once. However, being a black man myself, and given that this is a black cinema blog, I couldn't ignore the realities with regards to the judicial inequities that black men faced with criminal accusations experience, compared to their white counterparts.

Although I'd say that there didn't seem to be nods to that reality in the film - certainly not intentional; and in the post-screening Q&A which featured the stars of the film, the writer and director, the question was asked of Don Cheadle (who plays defense attorney Hugh Lang) and Washington, whether there was any awareness of the *blackness* of their characters, with regards to the relationship between the two, or the implications of a black attorney (out of all the attorneys the Pilots Union had in its arsenal) being asked to represent a black pilot who may or may not have committed a crime.

Both Cheadle and Washington suggested in their responses (or lack thereof) that, essentially, race wasn't a factor at all; in fact, Don Cheadle said that he really hadn't even given any thought to the film's potential racial implications (which I'm sure will be the subject of some academic paper in the future), and at the time that the question was asked during the Q&A, was the first time he'd actually considered the possibilities.

I personally find that a little hard to believe, especially when you consider how rare it is for a Hollywood studio to greenlight a drama of this nature with a black lead, let alone, a black lead, and, for all intents and purposes, we could say, a "black savior" character. But I have to take the man at his word.

Denzel (who seemed to kind of shrug off the question) is one of those few black actors who transcends race, as the saying goes. It wasn't said, but I don't believe the role was written specifically for a black man (the writer said he began working on it in 1999); it was written for a man; Denzel's a superstar - one of the few A-listers who can greenlight a film; Zemeckis wanted to work with him (they've never worked together before - certainly not in a director/actor capacity); according to the writer (John Gatins), I was left to believe that the film's stars were both he and Zemeckis' first choices for each role.

However, going into the screening, I wasn't entirely sure of what Don Cheadle's involvement in the story was; I knew what his role was, but I just wasn't sure who exactly he was loyal to, and what his motivations were. But both he and Denzel are on the same side, which was refreshing to see - although I wish Cheadle was given a bit more to do.

As Cheadle himself said - making a comparison between the relationship between both characters in Flight, and the relationship between the characters he and Denzel played in Devil In A Blue Dress (the last time both appeared in a film together, which is quite a shame) - they're pretty much the same thing, just packaged differently - Mouse has Easy's back in Devil; and attorney Lang has suspect pilot Whitaker's back in Flight.

But it was great to see them back in a movie together. I could hear a few whispers amongst those in attendance, when Cheadle first appeared in the film, about 45 minutes into it. I couldn't hear what all the whispers said, but I can't help but imagine that some of them were thinking and feeling what I was.

As you'd expect, the film ends on a high note, with several peaks and valleys that lead up to that - primarily, Whitaker's battles with his addiction (and how that affects those around him), with a potential manslaughter court case looming. Whitaker pays for his "sins" certainly, but we're left with the definite feeling that, in the long run, all will be well for Whitaker, and those he loves and cares about.

I did wonder however, if an opportunity to bewilder or keep the audience in suspense throughout much of the film (which I think could've made the experience of watching it, a more engaging one) was lost, when Zemeckis decided to give us some crucial information about Whikater during the film's first 30 minutes of spectacle, before/leading up to the thrilling plane crash.

In watching the film, as events unfolded, and I learned just how significant all the information we are given in those first 30 minutes are to the remaining 2/3s of it, I wondered if the film would've been better served had Zemeckis started it just after the plane crash, and moved the first 30 minutes to the end of the film instead. So, as we watch the first 2/3s unfold, the audience doesn't quite have all the information it needs to decide if this is a man they believe (he's under investigation for much of the movie) and want to root for. It would've kept us in suspense, uncertain of what really happened leading up to the crash.

And then, in the last 30 minutes or so, we revisit the past, and learn what really took place that morning, from the moment he wakes up, until the plane crashes in a field in Atlanta.

While it didn't *spoil* the film for me, I don't think I liked having all that information right away. But I understand the reasons for the chronological order the film is in - the audience is immediately hooked in with those thrilling first, very important 30 minutes.

Starting with the drama that ensues after the crash, may challenge the patience of those with short attention spans, or who like to be jolted early and often.

But I think there's enough depth, complexity and suspense to keep the average viewer engaged. Despite the trailers you've seen, it's actually more of a character-driven drama than spectacle. It'll be interesting to see how black audiences react to this Denzel Washington performance (given how *we* tend to reductively label depictions as "negative" or "positive"); it's a role that I don't think we've quite seen Denzel in before. Not this extreme anyway - extreme by studio standards.

There are 2 black women in the film, as I'm sure some are wondering; Tamara Tunie, who plays one of the flight attendants on Whitaker's plane, and Garcelle Beauvais, as Whitaker's ex-wife. Without revealing much about their parts, I'd just say that Tunie is given much more to do in Flight than Beauvais, who's on screen for probably less than 5 minutes, unfortunately for Garcelle Beauvais fans.

I should also note that this is quite a departure for Zemeckis, whose oeuvre is chock-full of PG and PG-13 family classics (like the Back To The Future franchise and Forest Gump). This is a very rare R-rated, purely adult drama for Zemeckis. There's full nudity, drug use (both the sniffing and shooting via needle kind), expletives uttered often, and more.

Some wondered how he'd perform with this kind of material (especially given that his last 3 films since 2004, were all animated features). But we're not talking about some kid just out of film school here; he's been doing this for longer than I've been alive, much of it at the highest levels (and he's not a stranger to drama either), so he captains a steady studio ship. 

Flight opens November 2, in the USA.

Here's its trailer and poster:

This article is related to: Denzel Washington, Flight, Don Cheadle


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