Review: Flight (2013)

Flight - 2013 - 1

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo & Nadine Velazquez
Runtime: 138 min // Certificate: 15

Moralism; it’s nothing new, not least in mainstream American cinema, yet whenever it rears its ugly head I still find myself feeling simultaneously stunned, angry and disappointed. The pernicious belief that some people are better than others is one that turns my stomach, not least when it is predicated on reasons of faith, because of rejection of certain vices or because of apparent heroism. I don’t watch films to be lectured or harangued by a holier-than-thou preacher of unquestioned religiosity, and I certainly don’t watch them to receive a two-hour sermon on the perils of rejecting God.

Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ film about an airline pilot who prevents a devastating crash while high on cocaine and drunk on the effects of miniature vodka, is so relentless, so unbearable and so shameless in its portrayal of drinkers as dangerous, of the faithless as evil and of religion as the cure for all of one’s ills that, were the main character not black, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written and directed by the Westboro Baptist Church. Moralism like this, no matter how much you dress it up as dramatic storytelling, does not a decent film make and though Flight promises to tell the interesting story of a man struggling to come to terms with substance addiction, it never elevates itself above the level of crude propaganda.

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I guess one has to admire the film for its sheer predictability. We begin with our main character, Captain Whip Whittaker (Washington), in a hotel room with one of his stewardesses (Velazquez) after a night full of substance abuse and sex. He snorts some coke, takes his seat on the plane, executes a dangerous but successful take-off and then, having downed a few vodkas, uses all of his skills to prevent a devastating crash. These first fifteen or so minutes are engrossing, which makes the subsequent shift in style all the more jarring. From thereon in we endure a ceaseless AA meeting which, a la Groundhog Day, refuses to end until our main character finds redemption for his sins. It’s metaphorical cinema at its most bland, not to mention boring.

Alas, the problem is that the film’s use of metaphor is about as subtle as an airliner to the bollocks. The moralism isn’t just pernicious; it’s also pitiful in its flagrancy. Of the six unfortunate souls to die in the crash, the most important is a woman who has had sex within the last few hours (she brought it on herself, the harlot!), while Whip’s co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) – who ends up paralysed – turns out to be a God-bothering young man whose wife takes to chanting “praise Jesus!” at Whip in a manner that borders on surreal parody. When the plane enters its perilous descent it manages to clip the top of the only building in the area, which just so happens to be a church, while it is a prayer group that ultimately drags the survivors to safety. The point couldn’t be clearer; the religious are good and the faithless are bad. The selfish actions of the faithless (Whip) have resulted in the unnecessary suffering of a good man (Ken), yet still the religious are there to help, for they are all-forgiving. To paraphrase a popular phrase; “faith, for lack of a better word, is good”.

What might have been a decent character study then, about a man wracked with guilt, shame and insecurity, instead descends into a predictable and turgid exploration of the importance of religion. Whip’s substance abuse is handled very poorly to begin with and the introduction of heroin-addict and love interest Nicole (Reilly), a woman far more attractive, glamorous and in control of her emotions than it is realistic for her to be, simply serves to make his plight all the more absurd. Like pretty much everything that happens in the film their meeting is considered an “act of God” and so their relationship, in which she is little more than a convenient plot device used to show the audience that abstinence is good, is about as believable as the fact that anyone survived the crash in the first place.

Though it might seem flippant, the main problem is that the film doesn’t once look at the benefits of cocaine and vodka. If Whip wasn’t off his tits there isn’t a chance that he’d have got that plane down safely. If the magic white stuff wasn’t still coursing through his veins then everybody on that plane would be dead. No sober man would’ve had the balls to invert the plane in the first place so, rather than berating him, the film should be holding him up as a poster man for the liberalisation of the narcotics laws! Seriously though, was there really any need for Whip to be quite so ridiculous? At one point he drives down the road with a can of beer in his hand without a care in the World… I mean, come on! That is the epitome of childish, lazy writing. If you want to talk about the perils of alcoholism then that’s fine but you have to at least treat the condition with respect and realism, otherwise you can’t expect anyone to take you seriously.

Flight is the ultimate non-thinking man’s film. It requires little more than subservience from its audience and were it not for Denzel Washington, who against the odds delivers a brilliant and heartfelt performance as a man teetering on the brink of a complete breakdown, the film would have been critically panned. For some unfathomable reason this unsubtle sermon was nominated for “Best Screenplay” at last year’s Academy Awards, so I guess the Academy also loves itself some heavy-handed moralism. After such a great start, it’s a shame that the character study was so hideously convoluted and unedifying. Everything about it is obvious, from the soundtrack which tells you how to think (at one point, when Nicole is about to inject herself with heroin, “Under the Bridge” starts playing… no, seriously) to the constant religious imagery, and though there’s much to admire in both Washington’s performance and the film’s major set-piece, everything else about it is total hokum.

What a shame too, because this is Washington’s best performance in years and the crash sequence is the best work that Robert Zemeckis has done to date. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is excruciatingly haughty and much too long.