Flight (2012) – Robert Zemeckis (Dir.), Denzel Washington, Barry Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman
So, do you remember there was that kid in school who, no matter what was going on in the world, whether it was a happy celebration, a sports game or just a bunch of people chilling out, they always needed to remind you that their father or their mother was a drunk/dead and that there was this whole story about it that they insisted on telling you, a story that is far too well-thought out to be necessarily true but the subject matter is so depressing you can’t stand up and outrightly call the kid a liar? And do you remember that this kid, whether or not the overwrought tale was true or not, would only play this little game of ‘pity me’ in order to garner attention from attractive girls/everyone in the room? Well, I do. This kid pulls on the heartstrings in so many manipulative ways that you have to just sit there and wait for them to stop talking, though you’ve heard the tale a thousand times and it is so riddled with cliches that you have to forcibly hold down your inner writer from calling out ‘BULLSHIT’, and, when they finish, whisper in the most convincing way possible, ‘I’m sorry’ (or, in the fashion of one of my more churlish friends, ‘That sucks’). Well, Flight is that kid.
I did not like this movie. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s not that it’s poorly acted or poorly directed. It’s none of those things. In fact, it’s a resounding ‘Fine’ in all departments. The issue is that you sit through this film, fully aware that director Robert Zemeckis is reaching directed into your chest, Kali-Mah style, and yanking on anything he can find. We get heavy-handed music cues (Sweet Mary Jane plays while the surprising tit-worthy Kelly “She Was in Sherlock Holmes, Man That Was Bugging Me For the Whole Movie” Reilly ODs on heroin, the opening line of Sympathy for the Devil, ‘Let me introduce myself’, plays as John Goodman enters the fray and With a Little Help from My Friends floods the audio after Denzel snorts coke and hangs out with a little girl in an elevator), we get close-ups so ham-fisted that they might as well have started their own fucking butcher shop (YES, MR. ZEMECKIS, WE CAN SEE HIM CRYING. WE DO NOT NEED A CLOSE UP OF HIM CRYING, THE TEAR IS GLISTENING, WE DON’T NEED TO SEE A REFLECTION OF THE DEAD FLIGHT ATTENDANT IN IT), and, of course, we have prostitutes, swelling scores and Denzel Mutherfuckin’ Washington. This thing is so emotionally manipulative, if it were a human being, it would be a Dexter-level sociopath. Of course it’s easy to get sucked in and cry a little when the Denzel Waterworks (TM) take off. But, if you have any emotional distance whatsoever, the hand is shown too fast and you just sit there, for two fucking hours, thinking to yourself “BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT”. And that, my friends, is what I did.
What’s it about? Well, The Denz is a hotshot ex-Navy airline pilot with a penchant for tits, ass, coke and booze. After a night of partying with a rather shirtless stewardess, he snorts a line, makes a screwdriver and then flies an airliner. What can go wrong? Well, apparently, the plane it a certified POS and knocks itself into a nosedive halfway through the flight (see what they did there?). With the help of the annoying dude who gets shot in the leg in The Hurt Locker, Denz Dub manages to invert the plane, stabilize it, revert it and then fly it into a field losing only six lives (or four, legally, seeing as crew don’t count as living people). It is one of the most stressful, harrowing and totally absurd openings to a movie since the Roger Moore era of James Bond movies. It’s reminiscent of Captain Sully “Sully is Actually His Name” Sullenberger and his heroic saving of the Hudson flight. Here’s the problem, Sully isn’t an interesting topic for a movie. You know why? Coz he’s a good guy without any discernible skeletons in the closet. So, Mr. Zemeckis took this yarn of heroism and asked, “What if the guy is a drunken douchebag?” Um… okay. Here’s the thing with movies about drunks. Alcohol is a depressant. Usually, people drink until they die, which is very solitary, slow and quiet. You know what isn’t any of those things? A FUCKING PLANE CRASH. After the initial whiz-bang of the opening 30 minutes, we are treated to an agonizing slow burn of a man haunted by demons and just making bad choice after bad choice. It is, in essence, a tale of two films. On the one hand, we have a completely unrealistic story of a super-pilot and on the other we have a man trying to kill himself with every liquor known to man. Both are fine in isolation, but these two halves are so tonally incongruous you practically shit yourself with boredom for the latter section. It’s as though Mr. Zemeckis spent 30 minutes tickling your dramatic erogenous zones and, just as it gets hot and heavy, he pulls out a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book and begins reading all of the 12 steps over and over in monotone. Let me say: I have a lot of sober friends and I have great respect for the program and how it helps people with the disease of alcoholism. I believe it’s important to tell the stories of people struggling with addiction. BUT SOMETIMES IT ISN’T APPROPRIATE TO READ THE TWELVE STEPS TO MY AROUSED FILM-PENIS.
Could this movie have been good? Yes. I believe so. Unfortunately, Zemeckis is a man personally trained by Steven “What the fuck is Subtlety? I Made Indiana Jones” Spielberg. He is from a school of cinematic thought where the music swells at every possible instant, silence is an audience’s worst enemy and CLOSE-UPS! OH LAWDY, THE CLOSE-UPS! Perhaps in the 80s, it was okay to make a movie about a white person going back in time and inventing rock and roll (we all know that’s what Back to the Future was reeeeally about). In the 90s it was okay to make a movie about a dullard getting AIDS and basically crafting the modern era of American politics. It was even okay in the early naughties to make a movie about a man in love with both facial hair and volley balls. But then…he did motion capture. Suddenly, Zemeckis crowned himself king of the Uncanny Valley with such horrifying and disgusting creations as The Polar Express, God-of-War-the-Movie: Beowulf and the final nail in the coffin for Jim Carrey’s holiday film career, A Christmas Carol. And when he was stuck jerking off in that realm of terror, film evolved. Suddenly, the Oscar norm isn’t Philadelphia, it’s No Country for Old Men. It doesn’t tell us when to cry, when to hold tight. It dares us not to. It challenges us. It leaves us questioning ourselves and our choices. It is a good move towards subtlety. Unfortunately, he missed it. Flight is Zemeckis’ first foray back into the land of real faces, but, unfortunately, they all still seem like those soulless pixelated monstrosities he so loves. Yes, they are human. Yes, they are acting well. But they seem shuffled about the story like hollowed-out meat puppets. It’s as though Zemeckis is attempting to craft his own filmic purgatory, a realm where audiences sometimes discover themselves trapped for 2 hours at a time. It is a place where a mirror is placed in front of their faces with the human essence, the core, the light at the center of consciousness, removed. It might be scary. It might not be. It is no hell. It is simply nothingness.
Flight is nothingness. It has a message, yes. It tries extremely hard to be a story about alcoholism. And yet, it tries so hard to be more than that and that, my friends, is exactly why it fails. Perhaps Mr. Zemeckis needs to wander away from the computer for a moment and interact with this strange species we call ‘Hoomonity’. Maybe he can then turn his obvious skill as a director towards something a little less Oscar-grabby. Something quieter. Something without CGI of any kind. He wants it again. He wants that golden statuette so badly. But, Mr. Zemeckis, if Forrest Gump were released today, it would go the way of I Am Sam: in the words of Black Robert Downey Jr., it would go ‘full retard’. We aren’t retards, Mr. Zemeckis. We’re older and smarter. Get with the program.