Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Summer of Films: Flight (2012)

Normally, I’m a fan of Denzel Washington. He has a compelling screen presence and his films tend to maintain a certain level of quality which I appreciate. Flight sounded like more of the same. It’s not. I really, really hated this film. Let’s discuss the disaster that was Flight.


Flight is the story of airline Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). The film opens with Denzel awaking in a hotel room with a Brazilian supermodel. They’ve been fooling around. He’s drunk and probably high, but his phone is ringing. He is being called to fly a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. He doesn’t look good... but one line of coke later and the soundtrack kicks out “It’s Gonna Be All Right” from Gerry and the Pacemakers and Denzel is good to go.
He boards the plane and addresses the passengers from the galley. As he does, he empties three vodkas into an orange juice bottle he’s drinking. He returns to the cockpit and takes off into a storm. As they take off, he needs to gun the engines beyond safety protocols to push his way through the storm to a clear patch. After that, he falls asleep and lets his co-pilot take over.

Denzel wakes up a few minutes later as the plane starts a nosedive. The hydraulics have failed and the plane is headed straight down. To save the plane, Denzel inverts it and flies upside down, which lets him straighten the plane just long enough to glide it in for a survivable crash. Only six people die.

Denzel wakes up in the hospital. Despite saving 105 people with a maneuver that we are told no other pilot could have done, Denzel learns that he’s suddenly the villain because the NTSB has taken a blood sample and found that he was super drunk and high on cocaine. They want to send him to jail. This will all happen at a final NTSB hearing. Fortunately, Denzel’s lawyer gets his toxicology report suppressed, so all Denzel has to do at the hearing is deny that he was drunk. But when the NTSB decides to accuse one of the dead stewardesses of having drunk the vodka, Denzel grows a conscience and announces that he drank them and that he is an alcoholic, even though this means decades in prison for him.

Why This Film Stunk

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this film won some awards and made $161 million on a $31 million budget, but I still despise it. Why? Well, for starters, the plot I described above sound pretty good, doesn’t it? Sure it does, only I left something out. The plot I described above takes up about 15 minutes of film time... but the film is 138 minutes long. So what happens in the other 123 minutes? Filler.
In several painfully long and slow scenes, we see Denzel throw away all of the hundreds of alcohol bottles he’s hidden around his house as well as the pot and the pills. He stares meaningfully at each and we stare with him. But you know how it is with alcoholics, so naturally we are treated to him buying more and we tearfully watch as he struggles not to drink any of it. Then he drinks it. Even worse, for reasons completely unknown, Denzel meets a woman who is a drug addict whose life is utterly boring and falling apart and the director thinks it’s a great idea to bring them together to be boring together... and we get to watch all of it. Yawn. I honestly contemplated skipping through those scenes after a while.

But that’s not even the worst sin in the movie. The bigger sin is the feeling that the whole thing is nonsense. It’s clear that whoever wrote this has no idea how the NTSB really works. They had no idea what brought down the plane or how to describe it to the audience. They had no idea what the NTSB does when it investigates. They didn’t seem to realize that the NTSB would be much more interested in finding out why the hydraulics failed than they would be in proving that Denzel had been drunk and high when he saved the plane. The sad result is that what could have been an interesting mystery about a plane crash with a good deal of tension as the question of his sobriety waits to be discovered at any moment turns into a nonsensical witch hunt in which the NTSB doesn’t care at all about what caused the plane to crash.

Nothing else makes sense either. The press seems to view him as a villain even though they apparently don’t know about his being intoxicated – as far as they should be concerned, he worked a miracle. Denzel has a friend (John Goodman) who can show up seemingly instantly and at will to give him drugs. After drying him out for a week, Denzel’s lawyer and best friend put Denzel into a hotel suite the night before the hearing. They have carefully removed all the alcohol from the minibar. Yet, magically, in the middle of the night the adjoining door to the next suite just happens to open, letting him into the empty neighboring room where he discovers the minibar and he goes hog wild; he goes to the hearing drunk and high on cocaine. Queue Gerry and the Pacemakers again.
The film creates fake tension by having Denzel fight with his lawyer (Don Cheadle) for no reason that makes any sense. Cheadle, by the way, is presented as a good guy even though he violates the rules of ethics in major ways that should easily lead to his debarment, including knowingly putting Denzel on the stand to lie. We are introduced to the evil airline owner who hides the fact from Denzel that he might go to jail... something everyone including Denzel already knows. Denzel pressures a stewardess to lie for him when the reality is she couldn’t have testified to what he wants her to avoid saying anyway. Not to mention, there's no payoff as we never see her testify.

Then we have the ending. The NTSB has been after Denzel, or so we are told as we never actually hear anything except through Denzel’s friends... show don’t tell, folks. But Denzel’s lawyer has gotten the toxicology report suppressed. So there is no alcohol issue anymore the NTSB can use to get Denzel. So they should now focus on the plane crash, right? Nope. The NTSB now seems determined to accuse a dead stewardess of being an alcoholic and having drunk the vodka Denzel did. Why? What does the NTSB care if a stewardess was drunk (a stewardess who was a heroine because she saved a boy who had slipped out of his seat when the plan inverted)? This is nonsense. The real NTSB will want to know why the plane crashed, not if a stewardess was drunk. Moreover, they will know that Denzel was drunk, even if they can't put it into the report. So why smear a stewardess? Further, as Denzel has been established as being both ultra-selfish and desperate to avoid prison, why would he care if they accused her of drinking the three vodkas? There is no way that draws a confession from him.
This movie made my head spin in bad ways. It was obvious the writer didn’t grasp the subject matter of airplane crashes or how the NTSB works. It was obvious the writer didn’t understand his characters. This feels like an attempt to grab an Oscar for playing drunk and the airplane crash was incidental to that. The film is packed with deus ex machina too... too much coincidence. Too much happens off screen - almost everything actually. The director mistook boredom for gravitas. And finally, the film was packed with clichés.

Take for example, the use of “It’s Gonna Be All Right” whenever Denzel cokes up and suddenly fills with energy and confidence. This has the feel of having been done a million times. The scene with the evil boss, the portrayal of alcoholism, John Goodman’s entire character... these are all things you’ve seen a million times before and none of them feel fresh.


I like Denzel. I like Zemeckis too. But this was a disaster. It was boring. It was stupid. The only good bit was the airline crash itself, which was impressive CGI work, and they even had to ruin that with an impossibly clear “cell phone” video of the crash.



Tennessee Jed said...

, I was also greatly disappointed in this one, and like you, I'm a big Denzel fan. I'm told this film was pitched based on the hero pilot who landed the plane in the Huson and the guys from Minneapolis who were aught drinking with 24 hr.s of a flight. Sort of a , life is never quite so clear cut. But, unlike real life, where the Minneapolis pilots were not stone alcoholics, this one was just not realistic. Yes it dragged. Yes it was too hard to swallow, and an over the top cliche. Oh well, nobody's perfect, not even Denzel

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, True. Nobody's perfect and this film is very far from perfect. I had the sense the whole time that it was based on the Hudson crash and likely something else (didn't know about Minnesota), but as you note, it never feels real at any point. It feels to me like a story written by someone who wanted to write about an alcoholic, but wanted them to be cool, and they used the airline connection as just a backdrop to give the movie some punch.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think it might have been a better film if 1) Denzel really was a hero who saved everybody aboard just like the real life hero, and 2) was like the real pilots in the Minneapolis case. real human beings in a stressful job who are real people and enjoy a cocktail once in a while. They are not drunk when they fly, and haven't had a drink in some 6 or 8 hours, BUT still violated Air Safety Reg.'s. Now you have an interesting dilimma: Popular hero who was technically wrong but SAVED 240 lives. Do you let him off, or uphold a zero tolerance standard. If you do give him a wrist slap, how can you justify enforcing rules in the future, etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That would have helped, to make this more borderline. Alternatively, as I mention in the article, I think it would have helped if they didn't know what caused the crash and they started to investigate and, as they did, they got closer and closer to discovering that he was intoxicated. Either way would have been better than "witch hunt aimed at outrageous drunk."

Anonymous said...

I'm a HUGE Zemeckis fan and, in fact, there are days when I identify with him and his work more than I do with Spielberg's work. (Spielberg was his mentor and gave him his first big break.)

This movie was... fine. It worked for me, BUT it was a little too long and it was anything but subtle (the song choices... good God!). I don't personally know any drug dealers but, as much as I like John Goodman, his character rang a little false at times, like a screenwriter's idea of a "fun" dealer. Kevin Smith even said it was as if Goodman was playing the father of Smith's own Silent Bob drug dealer character!

This might be a case where the direction is obviously stronger than the writing. This was actually Zemeckis' first live-action film in nearly a decade (after his misadventures with motion capture)... but screenwriter John Gatins had never written anything so heavy. His previous credits are for films like Summer Catch and Coach Carter. But he also worked on Real Steal, which you liked, so who knows? Perhaps his reach simply exceeded his grasp.

As far as the NTSB, I don't expect a movie to follow procedural stuff 100% and, given Denzel's behavior in the film, it wouldn't surprise me if the NTSB perhaps didn't want to cooperate. (I know, I know... research!) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I did like Real Steal, but it was formulaic fluff. This didn't follow any formulas and apparently Gatins was lost. I also can't say the direction was any better. Nothing in this film felt original or creative, and the things that were copies didn't feel all that well done to me. Also, I would have hoped that Zemeckis would have realized that the pacing was just awful and would have removed the filler and sped up the dull parts.

Goodman's character was entirely unreal. He felt like he was a copy of something out of The Big Lebowski or some other "unreal" film like that, only he was placed into a real universe and he just didn't make any sense as he exists.

tryanmax said...

I remember this film positively but, as you point out, I'm only remembering the first 15 minutes. That could've been a great film. The remainder is run-of-the-mill Lifetime Original Movie schlock.

I liked Goodman's character. If he had been the only thing in the film that required suspending disbelief, we wouldn't even be mentioning him, because he was fun.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I liked Goodman's character, but not in this film. And you're right, if his character was the only thing that required suspension of disbelief, then it wouldn't be an issue.

In terms of the first 15 minutes, I enjoyed those. The opening has a good energy and I thought the plane crash was excellently done. It was one of the best crashes I've seen on film. It's too bad that the movie fell apart right after that.

Outlaw13 said...

The "Brazilian supermodel" was the dead stewardess.

I disliked the movie as well. Maybe because I am an aviation professional, but I would like to think that someone somewhere would have stopped someone with a substance problem THAT bad...especially considering random drug screening that occur for people in the industry.

Additionally, I don't think you could successfully operate something like an airliner as tanked up as he was...and the movie WAS boring as hell.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I agree. I think there's no way that a pilot could get away with taking the drugs and alcohol he takes without getting caught. I also doubt that he could have flown the plane as stoned. Nothing in this film felt the least bit real to me. And yeah, it was boring as hell.

LOL! Yeah, it was the stewardess, but it sure looked like she was just some model he picked up... somewhere.

PikeBishop said...

And that girl was played by the Yummy Nadine Velasquez. As a long time fan of "My Name is Earl" after that opening scene, I can finally say, "Thanks Lord, you can take me now!" ;-)

PikeBishop said...

I had two problems with this film. I usually dislike films where the protagonist is just an unlikable F**king A**Hole! I also dislike films where the protagonist just keeps doing mind numbingly stupid things! This sums up the whole film

God, did we have to see him try to quit (and fail) what four, five times? Remember the scene where he shows up loaded at his ex wife's place and challenges his son.


Dave Olson said...

I haven't seen Flight because I've heard a lot of bad things about it. I've seen the "miracle landing" scene on YouTube (yeah, I know. Come get me, NSA) and it was sorely tempting to rent or download it (legally, from iTunes or Redbox this time) but I ended up passing.

From what I can tell about movies, they're made in the editing bay. At around 95 minutes, this could have been a crackerjack morality tale. But at 138 minutes it would appear to be a ponderous exercise in navel-gazing. If this is what they cobbled together, one wonders what they left out.

By the way, the "drunken Minneapolis pilots" thing may harken back to in incident in 1990 in which a pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer for Northwest Airlines got themselves pretty well lit up before flying a 727 to MSP from Fargo. According to an old article I found in the New York Times, the 40 minute flight went off without incident, despite the pilot being hammered. He blew a .13 when he was arrested, placing him second only to former Vikings QB "Two-Minute" Tommy Kramer for stellar job performance while shitfaced.

Dave Olson said...

(Ugh, I must have read it five times before posting. Can you channel your inner Winston Smith and change the first sentence in my last paragraph to "harken back to AN incident"?)

AndrewPrice said...

Pike, I can deal with a protagonist who is an ass if you feel like the bad guys are worse or if there is something fun about his assholeness, e.g. when he revels in being rotten. This character was just an unlikable ass and everyone around him was trying to be very nice. That made him really hard to like.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, That is one of the big problems with this film: it just goes on and on and on and it has no sense of timing.. You could cut every scene in half without anyone noticing that anything was missing. That's poor filmmaking.

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