I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve seen Robert Zemeckis‘s Flight (Paramount, 11.2) and they all agree that it holds the line and doesn’t mess around. But they also feel it’s a bit somber and even a downer because it’s just about a drunk (Denzel Washington) facing a situation from which there’s no good escape. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work or pay off on its own terms. It does. For what it is, the ending chosen by Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins seems right. But people were still giving me these looks when I asked them about it.
“But what about Denzel?,” I said to some of them. “He’s a real drunk…he really sank into that.” Yeah, but…. “But what? You don’t think so? It’s one of the best roles he’s ever had.” And they said yeah, he’s really good, but they were feeling a little subdued. “He’s not a Best Actor nominee?,” I asked. Yeah, probably, you’re right.
Everyone knows by now that the first 25 minutes are about Denzel’s bombed, coked-up airline pilot — his name is Whip Whitaker — saving 96 out of 102 passengers from awful death when the tail flap on a jet he’s flying malfunctions and it looks like curtains until he manages to stabilize the jet into a glide by flipping it upside down. It may be that he decides to roll the jet because he’s half in the bag, or maybe he’s such a great pilot that being half in the bag doesn’t matter. But he’s a hero nonetheless. Or he is, rather, until the authorities test his blood.
All drunks have the same choice, and all movies about drunks tell roughly the same story, give or take a variation. Should they keep drinking and come sooner or later to a bad end, or do they man up and accept that they have a problem and do something about it? But Denzel’s alcoholic has three choices. Keep drinking and doing lines. Openly admit that he not only has a problem but was drunk and buzzed on cocaine when he saved all those lives. Or lie his way out of any possible fines, severance and prison time and then admit he has a problem and do something about it.
In other words, the only straight-up honest, totally uncompromised, true-blue thing he can do is to admit to a crime and go to jail. How many confessed drunks in your local AA meeting have ever faced such a choice, and how many of those would take the pure, true-blue option?
Flight is a clean, direct, assured. It’s driven by character, and is not about intrigue or thrills or surprises or wild stuff except in the very beginning. It didn’t diminish at all the second time I saw it. I knew what it would be, and it did that thing. It was the first time that a very slight feeling of disappointment happened because I was expecting a little more, juice-wise and surprise-wise, than just a dynamite opener. Because the remainder of Flight, boiled down, is about when and how Denzel is going to deal with his problem…or not. The third lying option is the one I’d choose if I was in his shoes. It’s the option that anybody with half a fucking brain would choose.
I wish more films like Flight would be made. Films that care about character and don’t throw in car chases or hot sex scenes or jazzy dialogue just because they might distract audiences or give them a good cheap time. It’s a respectable film, but I don’t know how Joe and Jane Popcorn are going to react. LIke I said, there’s no good way out for Whip, and most of the time people want their lead characters to do something that they themselves could live with, or at least could accept. We’ll see what happens.