Sunday 1 November 2015

Flight (2013) - Movie Review

The plot: Commercial airplane captain Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) has a liking for the more elicit substances life has to offer. When he miraculously manages to pilot a plane through a freak storm and save the majority of the occupants on board, the media circus surrounding his heroism results in some of his habits being brought out into the open. With recovering junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) at his side and his legal supports Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and Hugh (Don Cheadle) doing their best to keep him out of prison, Whip will have to come to terms with his own addictions if he is going to make it through this debacle intact.

Denzel Washington is one of those uber-prestigious actors, much like Meryl Streep, who have received so much praise for their work that it is almost clichéd and a tad redundant to say that they give a fantastic performance. But that fact doesn’t change the reality of the situation, especially considering playing an alcoholic on screen that’s not meant to be for comic relief can be a tricky prospect. One gesture in the wrong direction and it can come across like the boozier cousin of Reefer Madness. Here, through his chiselled charisma and wry charm, he gives this very flawed character the poise that is sorely needed and portrays his character’s unrelenting thirst for the fermented in a way that is at once tragic but also funny in a very relatable way, like at the start when he’s groggily fumbling with his phone to answer it. Kelly Reilly, whom I last remember seeing as part of the great cast behind last year’s Chinese Puzzle, has really good on-screen chemistry with Denzel and makes for a compelling and rather fun character in her own right; it is immensely satisfying seeing her give what’s what to her sleazy landlord.

Alongside our main two, we have Greenwood giving a nice supporting turn, Cheadle working well alongside him as this strange straight-man double-act and John Goodman brings a jarringly mesmerising presence as Whip’s dealer Harling Mays. However, by far the most memorable performance of them all, even more so than the leads, comes from a character who technically doesn’t even have a name. There’s a scene set in a hospital where Whip and Nicole first meet and they encounter the credited ‘Gaunt Young Man’, played by James Badge Dale. While his writing probably had something to do with it, his engaging performance probably made for the most compelling moment of the entire film as he bring himself, Nicole and Whip together through a shared brush with death. It gets to the point where one of the film’s bigger sticking points is that we didn’t get to see more of him in the film.

Given Zemeckis’ primarily family-friendly output prior to this, it might come as a bit of a shock that not only is this not in potentially creepy mo-cap, but that it has a significantly higher rating. It’s almost as if Zemeckis wants us to damn well notice this as well, since as soon as we get our first character on screen, we get a naked full frontal shot of her on screen. However, regardless of the Disney-star levels of needing-affirmation-of-maturity, what really pushes this film ahead in terms of tone is John Gatins’ superb script work. In terms of its morality, the writing seems to be cleanly split into two sections: One involving the plane crash and Whip’s actions surrounding it, and the other involving Whip’s alcoholism. In all honesty, the latter part was the better handled of the two because Gatins seems to understand how it can feel for someone under the crushing heel of addiction, regardless of what it is to specifically.

Throughout the film, whenever Whip talks with his estranged son, the son asks him "Who are you?". While a bit blunt, it still illustrates how those with an addiction eventually reach that point where said addiction isn’t just a part of their identity; it is their identity as it becomes the only thing they are capable of identifying with anymore. We see Whip trying, and failing, to give it all up in the face of him narrowly escaping death but his alcoholism has that strong a hold on his life that he just can’t do it. Regardless of what people may argue, even a serious life-threatening situation can’t shake some people away from their vices. Hell, Whip indulges in his thirst any time that he is given the opportunity to do so, regardless of what consequences may come from it.

As for the plane crash itself, while I freely admit that this feels like the weaker of the two, it still has a lot of strong moments. Going back to the Gaunt Young Man scene, and from that point onward, there is a recurring trend of bringing up the 'Act of God' angle on what exactly occurred on that plane. Now, even though this brings up all kinds of difficult notions concerning the big ethical question about why God allows bad things to happen to good people if he actually exists, I’m going to avoid my usual soap-boxing this time around. Trust me, it isn’t worth bringing up just for the sake of jimmy-rustling and I don’t want to potentially offend my more religious readers when talking about a good film.

Instead, I’m going to go into how it helps strengthen the idea that there are things in life that we cannot control and that, if anything, we should focus on what we can control (potentially) like addiction. It even ends up reconciling the film’s tone concerning the ethics surrounding Whip’s substance abuse, as there are points where it doesn’t seem sure whether to condemn him for potentially putting people at risk by flying under the influence, or allow him to do so because of how well he can act under said influence. Then again, given all of the allowances made for artists who create while smashed on something or other, this is something that could probably be debated till the last recording of Tupac turns to dust, so going with the grey approach was probably the best way to go.

However, this isn’t enough to save one scene in particular, where the more religious side of things almost descends into the realm of low-grade Christian propaganda films that nearly choked audiences to death in 2014. When Whip meets his co-pilot in the hospital, it can become difficult at times to take seriously what is quite obviously meant to be a touching moment. Well done, Bethany Anne Lind as the co-pilot’s wife, whose parroting of "Praise Jesus" comes across more like a caricature of what people think Christians are like. Call it a result of being born and raised several countries removed from the Bible Belt, but it ever so slightly hurt the film’s credibility; thankfully, this is the only real instance where the film’s reality comes into question throughout the running time.

All in all, considering this is the director’s first foray into an adult rating since the 80’s with the screwball satire of all things ‘Murican Used Cars, he’s fit back into those shoes like he never took them off in the first place. The acting is on point, with some truly inspired performances from Denzel, Kelly Reilly and even James Badge Dale in his nameless role, the writing juggles the personal and ethical sides of the story expertly and Zemeckis’ direction bolstered by his team of regulars tie it all together.

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