Sunday, November 11, 2012

Flight (2012)

People who go to the movie without first reading reviews might expect to see an updated Airport with Denzel Washington in Burt Lancaster's role, but Flight's story is more about the aftermath than the plane crash. It's nice to see a script that still searches for the big drama in a small world.

We're introduced to Whip Whittaker as he wakes from a hungover, one night stand. We quickly see he's a drunk, coke fiend, and flirt. We get to see him at his worst first: flip, cocky, confident. We follow him to his job as head pilot on a plane carrying 102 passengers. His co-pilot, Ken Evans, who has never met him before is taken aback by his brash manner and inappropriate jokes. Evans may not realize Whip is a drunk, but it's obvious he's highly erratic. But as the flight takes off and they enter a heavy storm, Evans flashes of brilliance through Whip's fog. When the situation demands, Whip is sharp, quick and sure in crisis. He navigates through the storm with a speed that is frightening and risky.

Like Evans, you marvel at his ability but also wonder if he exposed the plane and its passenger to unnecessary danger. Would it have been safer to plod slowly through the bad weather rather than zooming through it as Whip did. For that matter, should he have canceled the flight altogether, given the blinding rain?

That emergency over, Whip sneaks himself some liquor, lets Ken take over the controls and snoozes. Something on the plane breaks down and suddenly the plane is falling. Ken panics while Whip jerks to attention and, with astounding courage under pressure, barks out commands to both Ken and the head flight attendant as he fights to keep one step ahead of the fast falling aircraft. He does everything possible to slow the plane's descent, but is keenly aware it might be a losing battle ordering his flight attendant, Margaret, to say goodbye to her son, so her last words of love can be recorded on the plane's blackbox, just in case the unthinkable happens.

Meanwhile, in the passenger compartments, one hysterical attendant unstraps herself and is bounced about, while another, Whip's one night stand, Katerina, unbuckles herself to save a child's life.

After rolling the plane (turning it upside down) to slow it's drop, Whip crashes it into a field, taking out a church steeple and cross on his way down.

He wakes up in the hospital and first wants to know how many people died. How many crew? He learns that 6 people died in the crash, including two crew members, one being Katerina. A tear falls from his eye and it's tinged with blood. It's in the hospital that we see him as an addict yes, but not a person who only thinks of himself, not even as a person who thinks of himself first. He can't control his drinking, but he thinks on his feet, suppresses impatience and pain and follows protocol between shots.

The fact that Whip did the seemingly impossible and landed the plane has made him a media hero. He numbly watches the tv coverage. When everyone repeats that no one else could have landed the plane like he did, he knows it's the truth. When they all say that it was a miracle, an act of God, he looks at the plane wreckage and wonders what God would have done that.

That's a theme threaded throughout the film. What role does faith play? The answer is unclear. Was Margaret the only flight attendant to survive because she believed in God and hadn't been out carousing with Whip the night before as Katarina had? Whip plays upon her graditude towards him to get her to agree to lie to the FAA and deny knowledge of his drunkenness.

It turns out that co-pilot Ken and his wife are religious zealots who believed that God willed the plane to crash. Whip views them as insane, but is relieved because, thinking that the crash was fated, Ken has decided not to report Whip's drinking to anyone. Whip benefits from others' faith in God, without expressing any himself. It's not clear if the movie sees this as one of his flaws.

In the hospital Whip meets a cancer patient and Nadine, a heroin addict who almost died from an overdose, when they all sneak into the same stairwell to smoke. Having had too many brushes with mortality in the same day, Whip is determined to stop drinking. When his old friend and supplier hippy Harling stops by the hospital to replenish his stash, Whip refuses. Cigarettes are the only vice he wants to keep. He orders Harling to keep liquor and drugs away from him.

The press is camped out at his condo, so he goes to his old family farm to hide out. When he plugs in his cell, he's got dozens of waiting voice mails. I'm impressed because the phone is already fully charged. Even without a crash, an airplane flight always drains my cell battery.

Searching the farm barn and quarters, Whip dumps all the liquor he can find, resisting temptation. But when he hears the FAA is investigating the crash and the fact that he was drunk on the flight, he's angry and indignant. His condition had nothing to do with the tragedy. The plane was falling apart. It was in poor mechanical condition, it broke down in mid-air and he saved it when no one else could have. He feels he ought to be thanked, not investigated and resents the attorney provided for him by the pilot's union. His drinking problem -- it's not a problem. It's not what caused the crash. It's no one's business but his own. Lashing out, he abandons abstinence and soon finds himself driving under the influence to the home of the heroin addict he met at the hospital.

He rescues Nadine from her violent landlord, takes her back to his farm and the two of them embark on a relationship that's surprisingly pure, given its participants.

The pressure mounts for Whip. With 6 passengers dead, he's not only facing an FAA investigation, but criminal charges which could put him in jail for life. Nadine joins AA and gets sober. He supports her progress, but doesn't want to be preached to. He accuses her of finding excuses. She drinks because her mother died of cancer? Lots of people lose loved ones to cancer. They don't drink. He refuses to blame someone else. He chooses to drink. He has an ex-wife and son who don't talk to him, because, "I choose to drink." He denies being unable to control it. But when he ends the night in another drunken stupor, Nadine leaves.

Meanwhile, the FAA case against him appears to be going well. They did a toxicology test on him at the hospital which showed the liquor and cocaine in his blood, but the lawyer got it thrown out. They found two empty liquor bottles in the plane's trash though and Whip may still be asked about those at the hearing. Except for Katerina (who'd been out drinking with him the night before), all the other crew members tested clean for drugs and alcohol and there was no beverage service on the flight, so the passengers didn't drink. The lawyer knows the alcohol was Whip's. Whip bristles curses out the lawyer and his union rep. Only to show up at the rep's house later, with nowhere and no one else to turn to.

He's sober for 9 days, pending his FAA hearing. Things are nearly homefree on the eve of the proceeding and they take him to a hotel in the same building where he will be testifying the next morning. They place a security guard outside of Whip's hotel door and clean the refrigerator of all booze, so he won't be tempted. The night is interminable. Whip is restless. He hears bumping in the night and finds that the door to the connecting room is open. He goes inside, closes the open window that caused the door to bank and is leaving when he hears the hum of the refrigerator. MINI BAR. He opens the door of the fridge which is, unrealistically, stocked with nothing but liquor. Every variety you can think of. It's almost comical. Whip lingers over the contents, takes out a tiny bottle of Blue Goose. Vodka is his greatest weakness of all. He fingers it, but then sets it down on the fridge top and leaves. As the audience sighs with relief (and a whiff of skepticism), we hear a dramatic thump as Whip's hand snatches into the frame and snatches that bottle of vodka, with the speed of a frog's tongue catching a fly.

Of course, by the time the lawyer and union rep show up the next day, Whip is smashed, passed out on the floor.

They think all is lost. The FAA hearing is just 45 minutes away. There's no way to get him sobered up by then. But they call Harling and he has just the cure. Cocaine. It will bring Whip back up and reverse those hangover symptoms. Harling prepares Whip for a snort with the precision of a operating room surgeon requesting instruments. When he asks for a "cocoa puff," Whip's staid attorney suspiciously knows just what he means, suggesting that he must have "experimented" himself back in the day.

The coke up his nose, Whip is soon revived. With consciousness, his confidence also returns. He's alert and assured. Looks like he'll make a decent FAA witness after all. The union rep reminds him that when the investigator asks him questions, it's ok to say he doesn't know. "Don't tell me how to lie about my drinking," Whip orders, "I've been lying about it all my life."

The hearing is a breeze and the investigator is easy, on Whip's side. He's been lauded as a hero and the airplane's equipment has been found faulty and aged. In her mind, Whip is testifying as a witness, not a suspect.

She's at the end of her questioning and comes to the two empty bottles found in the plane's garbage bin. They don't have his toxicology report, but Whip has already denied drinking for the 72 hours preceding the crash. Katerina is the only crew member who tested positive for alcohol, plus she had a history of abuse. She had been in rehab just 16 months ago, in fact. So, is it Whip's opinion that Katarina was the crew member who drank those bottles of alcohol.

This is where my belief lost its suspension. It's the dramatic highlight of the film and Denzel Washington does a triumphant job with these scene, but this line of cross-examination is ridiculous. First of all, the fact that two empty bottles of liquor were found on the plane does not mean that one of the crew members drank the contents. Empty bottles are just empty. Consumption is suggested, but not proven. Secondly, while an expert can provide an expert opinion, a layperson can only testify as to facts within his personal knowledge. Whip may be an expert on flight, but he's not an expert on the likelihood of crew member imbibition. That question from the FAA examiner would have warranted immediate objection and Whip would never have been compelled to answer it in real life.

Of course, the question could have been rephrased. Whip could properly be asked if he saw Katarina drink the liquor or know how the bottles ended up in the trash. But no lawyer would have allowed him to be asked his thoughts or opinions about whether Katerina could possibly have downed the liquor in those empty bottles outside of his presence. Still, his crack attorney and protective union rep apparently asleep on the job, Whip is asked this absurd question not once but three times. He breaks under the pressure and says that Katarina was not drinking on that plane, she was saving a little boy's life. He was the one who drank. He drank on each of the three days before the flight and he drank on the day of the flight. He drank, because he's an alcoholic.

Washington's Whip doesn't break down or crack up. He sweats. He tells the truth. He reacts, without over-acting. It's a performance of subtle depth.

Post-script, Whip is sober and in jail. He'll be there for 5 years or more. He's telling his story to the other inmates, a message of warning and redemption. He's imprisoned, but says that it's the first time he's felt free in years. We next see him in his cell writing studiously. Pictures of Nadine and other friends adorn his walls. He has an unexpected visitor. It's his son. If this was supposed to be an emotional finale, it falls short and pales in comparison to the hearing scene we just witnessed. Whip's son has been a presence throughout the movie, but not a concrete character. More of a symbol of the life Whip fled through alcohol. I suppose now that Whip is sober, it's natural for him to return to those things that he abandoned, but due to an earlier confrontational scene between father and son, the kid isn't likable to me and I'd just as soon have had him remain all symbol, no screen time.

Whip, on the other hand, is pleased to see the boy from whom he's been estranged, Whip is proud when he is asked to help him with a school essay about the most fascinating person he's . . . never known. Taken aback, Whip is hurt to hear that his son considers him a stranger, but he collects himself and wants to start mending fences. He's ready for them to get to know one another. Who are you the kid asks? That's a good question.

I don't remember myself but another moviegoer told me that The Pelican Brief ended in similar fashion.

The film was good, moving without being melodramatic or (too) maudlin. Some elements (like the estranged husband and ex-wife) were cliche, but the hackneyed components played so small a part in the script that they could be forgiven.

Whip was an arrogant, drunk with an abundance of compassionate qualities. Thus, he was likable, but you weren't rooting for him to beat the rap he deserved either. Washington made Whip very human, whether hero or culprit.

The rest of the cast was just as good, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Don Cheadle. The only false note was played by Tamara Tunie (Margaret). At Katarina's funeral, Margaret was supposed to be tearful but wasn't. Whip wiped away non-existent drops from her face. It just seemed like we caught the actress pretending.

All in all though, Flight does take off.

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