Crash Landing

4 Nov

Here’s the thing: I don’t always need my movie characters to be likeable.

In a film like, say, Bad Santa, a truly unlikeable guy can be very enjoyable to watch.

But it’s a fine line, and the new movie Flight unfortunately lands on the wrong side of it.

The film tells the story of Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), an airline pilot with a serious alcohol and drug problem, who miraculously saves 96 out of the 102 passengers aboard his plane when a mechanical failure causes it to go down. But the movie’s not so much about Whip’s heroism as much as it is about his addiction and his unwillingness to admit it or get help. (Think The Sully Sullenberger Story, if Sully had a drug problem.)

Sounds like a fascinating film about a complicated character uncomfortable with himself and the extra burden of being called a hero. Wouldn’t be the first movie about a questionable hero or a person with drug and/or alcohol issues, and this one, with Robert Zemeckis at the helm (making his first live-action film since Cast Away) and Washington in the lead, had great potential to be a seriously great and very sympathetic portrait.

However, just like the flight on screen, the movie takes a nosedive early on.

The first time we meet Whip he’s waking up hung over after a wild night of sex, alcohol, and drug use. Two hours before a flight, he drinks some more, and then does a line of cocaine in order to perk himself up and get ready.

Once aboard the flight, with the plane in midair, he discreetly mixes himself a screwdriver while talking to the passengers, and then proceeds to pass out at the wheel — until the plane suddenly goes into a steep dive, and he has to take control.

I’m sorry. I’m no narc or goody two-shoes, and I have sympathy for those battling addiction both off and on screen. But I stopped rooting for Whip the second he made that drink. If you’ve ever flown on a plane or have plans to do so in the future, I’m sure that scenario sounds horrific to you too.

Screenwriter John Gatins continues to do his lead character no favors as we learn that Whip’s colleagues know he has a problem and still let him fly. And then, when we see that his friends willingly lie for him, and we watch as his union lawyer (Don Cheadle) does whatever he can to cover up Whip’s possible role in the crash … well, it only makes the whole thing more reprehensible.

It appears the only thing in Flight that makes you want to be on Whip’s side is the fact that he’s played by Denzel Washington. And the thing is, Washington is very good in this role, showing the discomfort and quiet desperation of a man in denial of his addiction. It’s a performance that builds, and allows Washington to really shine in the closing scenes when Whip finally realizes he has to come clean about his problem.

(The crash scene itself is also impressively portrayed, with amazing visual effects.)

I just wanted Whip to snap out of it much earlier, and for Flight to right itself, with Whip coming to terms with his addiction and actually dealing with the role it could possibly have played in the crash — or, conversely, in how he was able to land the plane so skillfully and with so few casualties. I know it’s not that easy to break an addiction, but I think that’s a movie I would have liked more.

Zemeckis should have guided Gatins, who has battled his own alcoholism issues, in the writing of another draft.

And all this doesn’t even take into account how far-fetched it is that Whip would be able to avoid the media as long as he does, or that someone in his circle of friends and colleagues wouldn’t rat him out.

So yeah, Flight hits a lot of turbulence en route to its destination. That’s why I’m only giving the movie a B– … probably a half-grade higher than I’d like to give it, simply because Washington is so good.

Did you see Flight? I’d be curious to know your opinion about the film. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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