Monday, November 5, 2012
Sympathy for the Denzel: Flight
More often than not, when we think about cinema's great performances — from Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull to Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. to Frances McDormand in Fargo to Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — we don't just think of great acting but of great acting opportunities: dynamic, well-written roles, often in well-crafted movies. It would be strange if we didn't. Rising tide lifts all boats, and all that — great movies are built of great parts and great performances, and they create them, too. When looking at a single awesome character — say, Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight — it's impossible to know how much power comes from acting itself and how much is due to the architecture of the character (dialogue, motivations and basic actions), the hair and makeup, the atmosphere created by the score or the craft of the director and editor. So perhaps the truest indication of acting excellence comes when an actor takes a part in a mostly mediocre film overwhelmed by hackneyed supporting roles, song cues and plot devices, and creates a character more honest and compelling than almost everything else around him (or her, or it). By that measure, Denzel Washington's performance in Robert Zemeckis's Flight is one of the best of the year.
Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, who is thrust into the national spotlight when he successfully crash-lands a malfunctioning commercial airliner, saving the lives of more than 100 onboard (not to mention all those who could have been in the plane's crash zone if Whip hadn't been skilled enough to land the aircraft in an open field), against only a handful of deaths. Immediately, Whip is hailed as a hero. As one of his buddies puts it, he'll never have to pay for another drink for the rest of his life, and that's quite a perk, because the only thing that defines Whip's life more than flying is boozing. He's an unmistakable addict, pounding drinks until he passes out and using cocaine to self-medicate himself out of his hangovers. He drinks the night before he flies, the morning before he flies and even while he's flying, emptying bottles of alcohol from the beverage service supply into a bottle of orange juice. In short, Whip drinks when most alcoholics drink: at every opportunity. Whip is what some would call a highly functioning alcoholic. His marriage fell apart and his relationship with his son is almost nonexistent, but he has a career, and his piloting instincts are second to none. In the movies, addiction is often depicted as a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, but that's too clean. Addicts are more like shattered mirrors, and Washington finds the truth in each of Whip's jagged pieces: arrogance, denial, belligerence, kindness, fear, charm, stubbornness, optimism, intelligence, bitterness ... the list goes on. Washington's performance embraces the mess, but the rest of Flight isn't nearly as sophisticated.
Pathetic cliches abound. After the crash, Whip gets into a relationship with a recovering heroin addict fresh off an overdose (Kelly Reilly's Nicole), who of course has bad tattoos, a shithole apartment with a landlord who never bothers to change out of his bathrobe and a dealer who encourages her to do porn for cash. There's a lovely shot early in the film in which Nicole is captured shooting-up in the reflection of a framed picture of her and her mother. But what at first seems like a sympathetic reminder of Nicole's pre-addiction beauty and glow winds up later on feeling like a crass oversimplification of the origins of addiction, once we learn that Nicole's mother died of cancer, as if that incident explains everything. Meanwhile, Whip's best friend is a dealer named Harling Mays (John Goodman), a foul-mouthed burnout who has a bottle opener mounted on his dashboard and comes to visit Whip in the hospital with a supply of porn magazines as a get-well gift. Through these characters, the all too typical caricature of the addict as lowlife takes shape — causing me to wonder if Whip would have come off that way, too, if not for the gracefulness of Washington's performance. Of course, at least these addicts aren't religious. Whip's copilot (Brian Geraghty) is a devout man who is portrayed as high-strung, lily-livered, inept and, for believing in a higher power, batshit insane — the latter somewhat ironic considering that the film, written by John Gatins, also portrays Alcoholics Anonymous as a kind of unimpeachable truth. (The traditional 12 Steps are littered with references to God, and while many programs take a more agnostic approach, AA meetings aren't where you want to go to avoid believers.) In the film's most unfortunate scene, the copilot's wife stands by her husband repeatedly praising God as if stuck in a mindless trance.
Was the crash an act of God? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. But from the very beginning, Flight establishes that the equipment on the plane malfunctions. We see exactly that during the extensive crash sequence (sharply edited by Jeremiah O'Driscoll), which combines shots of the pilots, the cockpit's console, the passengers in the cabin and the plane's exterior to portray (1) the chaos of the crash, (2) the failure of the copilot's controls and (3) Whip's heroic efforts to pull the plane out of a nosedive. It's a gripping sequence — the best 10 minutes of the movie by far. And yet, strange as it sounds, the rest of Flight would have been better off without it, because then we'd be forced to make up our own minds about the role of alcohol in the crash. Instead, there's no ambiguity whatsoever. Flight clearly depicts Whip as an addict under the influence who pulls off an almost impossible crash-landing in a busted plane. And just in case we don't believe our own eyes, the movie is filled with characters confirming what we already know. Alas, not even Whip has doubts, so how can we?
When Flight observes Whip gripped by the monotonous routine that is alcohol abuse, it is appropriately repetitive. But even beyond that, Flight gets stuck in a loop (you thought I was going to say "caught in a tailspin"), as if nothing can be said or done just once. Even the plane crash sequence is needlessly repetitive, with a typical development going something like this: Whip says he's going to invert the plane, then falling objects within the cabin demonstrate that the plane is inverted, then Whip confirms to air-traffic control that the plane is inverted and then the scaredy-cat copilot yells something like, "Oh, God, we're inverted!" Washington plays Whip as if Flight is a complex character study or morality tale. But Gatins and Zemeckis are much more concerned with whether Whip will be criminally punished, and to what degree, rather than with whether he deserves to be. The film closes with Whip wondering who he is, delighted by his lack of certainty, and while it makes for a touching final note, it's also a tease. The Whip who leaves the film is much more fascinating than the one we get to observe. That Whip Whitaker is ready to take flight.