Sunday, May 15, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XVIII: This film was brought to you by the Cocaine Council


Zemeckis comes back very strong, with one of the better addiction dramedies of our age.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by John Gatins
With Denzel Washington (Whip Whitaker), Kelly Reilly (Nicole), Nadine Velasquez (Katerina Marquez), Bruce Greenwood (Charlie Anderson), Don Cheadle (Hugh Lang), and John Goodman (Harling Mays)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Twelve years.  That's how long Robert Zemeckis spent trying to make motion-capture animation happen.  That's a long, long time in a filmmaker's life; and the effort, we've seen, was mostly wasted.  But with the catastrophic failure of Mars Needs Moms, Zemeckis finally saw the light—that is, he was more-or-less compelled to see the light, thanks to the enormous financial loss that his production of that film occasioned.  Now, Zemeckis was obliged to do what he promised he wouldn't.  He came back to live action.

And that brings us to what might as well be termed the Zemeckis Renaissance—or, if that seems way too premature, when Zemeckis is only two films into what I hope is a renewed run of quality motion pictures, well, let's simply call it "a return to form."

But whatever you want to call it, it certainly feels refreshing—after The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol—to sit down and watch a Robert Zemeckis movie that, because it was made with physical objects and physical people, doesn't shove its cartoonishness down your throat except when it actually helps tell the damned story.  Obviously, I refer to Flight, and Flight is kind of great—even moreso if your blu-ray broke during the final scene, and cut the movie off before it lurched clumsily into its epilogue.  We'll get to that in due time; for now, let's just sit comfortably in the warm glow of this movie about plane crashes, corruption, and crippling substance abuse.

Oh yeah.  That feels good.

Alright, so Flight is the tale of Whip Whitaker.  He is a champion airline pilot and possessor of one of the most hilariously on-the-nose names outside of DC Comics, which is also clearly an artifact of a screenplay that didn't countenance someone who was not blinding-white being cast in the role—although, certainly, Denzel Washington wears the moniker as well as anyone I can conceivably imagine.  Most importantly, though, Whip is the epitome of a functional addict.  Mainly, he's an alcoholic; but cocaine, pot, and pills are all part of the magnificent system he has established that keeps him upright and alert—and never anywhere close to "sober."

We meet Whip in bed with a beautiful woman half his age (and the camera captures her sexual characteristics in a way that rides a very fine line between naturalism and leering).  The first thing he does is finish a warm, flat beer from the night before.  Then he argues with his ex-wife on the phone.  And that's when he drops a bomb on us, when he casually mentions that he's scheduled to be in the pilot's seat in less than an hour.  What this situation calls for is a little bump or two, and we smash cut from the cocaine to Whip in his captain's uniform, striding confidently through the hotel hallways.  It's not even entirely clear if the sunglasses are meant to hide his eyes from the stabbing light of day—or if he's just wearing them because he knows they look incredibly cool.

Insofar as we know what movie we're watching, we already know that Whip's flight is absolutely doomed—and when Whip downs a few more vodkas on the plane it doesn't look any less doomed—but Zemeckis toys with our expectations here in the most exciting way.  When Whip decides to deviate from his flightplan and power through some inclement weather, against the advice of his co-pilot, we get that old knot in our stomach; but Whip knows exactly what the hell he's doing, and soon they're in clear air.  It's the kind of move that elicits a round of applause from the passengers.  So this must be the moment that the plane decides to fall right the fuck apart; and, oh, how wondrously it does; and you can just feel Zemeckis easing himself back into live-action filmmaking, conjuring up the exact kind of action-thriller sequence that he'd played to perfection once already, twelve years prior in Cast AwayFlight's crash scene is bigger and brawnier and longer, and it's great.  Obviously, it's not better—but only because our drunken shithead of a pilot actually does save the day, pulling a trick out of his ass that puts the plane into a glide and allows him to land it in a field.

The loss of life remains keenly felt—it's four passengers, and two crew members, including his paramour—but it pales in comparison to the number that would have died, over a hundred, if anyone but Whip had been at the controls.  Later, we'll find out that that's objectively true: the NTSB—because you know there's going to be an investigation—runs a simulation of the crash, over and over, and not one pilot they put in the simulator manages to do what Whip could.  And it is upon this thin reed that Whip clings to his addictions, despite the moment having arrived for him to change.

This all happens in the first twenty minutes.  The rest is Whip simply grappling with his life as it enters free-fall: the stress of the investigation; the support of the corrupt pilot's union upon which Whip can apparently unreservedly rely; the prickly, zealous attorney the union hires, who manages to get a judge to throw out the tox report that would've handily put Whip in prison; the woman Whip meets in the hospital, Nicole, whose heroin addiction, economic pressures, and porn starlet past we've already been introduced to in the cross-cut prologue of the film; his ex-wife and estranged, angry son; and, worst of all, the constant, ever-ready supply of booze that follows him everywhere he turns, even when he turns away.

Gee, turns out quitting is harder when the world enables and normalizes your problem.

But this is normal for him, and as much as Flight is an addiction melodrama of the very oldest-school, Flight raises interesting questions, which it ignores more than it resolves, because they're not really soluble.  It does not exactly take issue with the bright line rules we have for what constitutes criminal intoxication—but it does ask if there's any real moral problem here, when Whip (however buzzed) was clearly operating at the height of human capability when he flew that plane.  Thus the actual contest in Flight is not the external legal procedural; this unfolds mainly on the margins.  Whip's problem isn't that drinking made him crash a plane—because it didn't.  Whip's problem is that drinking makes him a fucking asshole.

Washington was an inspired choice: his natural charisma allows us to be drawn to him despite the fact that his character is abrasive and unpleasant even when he's in a good mood; and when he's in a bad mood, which is most of this movie, there's almost nothing appealing about him, other than our good associations with Washington, and the quiet, almost invisible little touches that the actor brings to the character, that let us in on the pain he feels pretty much all the time, and the struggle happening within.  (It's in rather marked contrast to Zemeckis' direction, which is keen yet broad, as befits his classic idiom—the blood tear was an especially nice touch, Bob.)

Considering that Whip spends more than half of this film falling-down drunk, it seems practically impossible that there aren't at least a dozen shots of the actor collapsing onto glass floors in this movie.  Honestly, I have to assume that Zemeckis simply forgot that was one of his signature moves, because he sure as hell couldn't have thought it was just too obvious.

The fascinating thing about Flight, then, is how it manages for almost all of its runtime to have its cake and eat it too: it is a film about a complete wreck of a human being that we still somehow kind of enjoy hanging out with; it is a film about a horrific addiction that manages to be funny, partly because it's so overwrought, but there's intention in that choice as well.  Apparently, Flight is of the opinion that hardly anything is more mordantly hilarious than an out-of-control alcoholic; in the execution, it's not even wrong.  There's a setpiece with a minibar in particular where the film blows itself up in just about the most glorious way.  (And when this scene is decked out with expressionistic shadows and some of the most overblown slow motion outside of a Zack Snyder film, the unlikely phrase "setpiece with a minibar" is honestly the only way to properly describe it.)

No, despite the moral fable of the script, Zemeckis' direction takes an unconventional approach to the subject: in realizing that an addict's need to feed their addiction can be, from a certain distance, so absurdly pathetic that it reaches the level of pitch-black comedy, "pitch-black comedy" absolutely becomes his film's standard operating mode.  Not that Flight is an unsympathetic film—when it comes to Nicole, Kelly Reilly plays her character as a tarnished innocent committed to recovery, and she's rewarded for it.  (Or at least she's not actively punished.)  But Flight reserves a certain contempt for Whip and his utter recalcitrance, and it even manifests this contempt in the form of a character—specifically, John Goodman's affable drug dealer, Harling Mays.

Goodman's in the movie for less than ten minutes and still winds up delivering the most memorable side character—in a picture that also features Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood.

Introduced (with Flight's characteristic super-subtlety) with "Sympathy for the Devil" blaring on the soundtrack, Mays pretty much literally represents Whip's own personal Satan.  He's the very personification of his gross lifestyle (even if Whip's penchant for partying with hot stewardesses like it was 1965 certainly doesn't make his lifestyle seem completely undesirable).  But evil or not, Mays certainly has the cure for whatever ails you.  And that's how Flight winds up, probably by accident but no less amusingly for it, with the most unambiguous product placement for cocaine hydrochloride that's ever been smuggled into a major motion picture.  (Consider that while every other drug is depicted as severely bad for you, cocaine is uniformly presented as awesome and even helpful.)  But, now that I think about it, cocaine's privileged place on Flight's laundry list of psychoactive substances might even be on purpose: after all, half the damned point of the film is that our own society's most readily-available psychoactive, alcohol, is at least as nasty as many of the drugs we simply outlaw.

In any event, if Mays is the Devil, then God is simply absent, as God usually is in any Zemeckis joint.  The most devout believers are actively mocked for their belief, notably when Whip's co-pilot decides that Jesus has commanded him to lie under oath—since clearly God was working through his inebriated captain on the morning of the crash, and it just wouldn't be good to go against the will of God.  (Even if one is swearing in His name to tell the truth.)

It's not as outright nihilist as many of Zemeckis' "serious" movies, but it certainly doesn't imply that there's any kind of higher power looking out for us, as the AA crowd would prefer it.  No, in Flight, the choices we make (even the choices we can't make) are ours alone.

There is bad in the movie, however: above all, there's a far better version of Flight that avoids its ending, which is unbelievably forced.  (Actually, there is a higher power in Flight whose hand is visible.  Unfortunately, it's only the screenwriter's.)  Washington wrestles mightily with Whip's wild course correction, and it is satisfying—but only just.  Altogether, it's more of a baffling ending than a bad one—it abandons, for its five most crucial minutes, the mood of the work as a whole, which has always shaded its dislike for its protagonist with a certain grudging respect for his disgusting self-propelled misery.  Yes, if you squint, you can just barely see that perhaps Whip is consciously making the only decision he can that will let him out—but to the extent this is even in the movie, it doesn't necessarily come from an honest place within his character.

But, luckily, in its very final moments, the film almost redeems the sins of its ending, with a pretty great last line, and a hell of a line read, that suggests that the question Whip's son is asking him is one that Whip really doesn't know the answer to.  And that question is, simply, "Who are you?"

Score:  8/10

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