ON THE SILVER SCREEN: BLOTTO PILOT (FLIGHT)

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Doing some catch-up on films I’ve missed.

By Brian Lafferty

December 15, 2012 (San Diego) – Every now and then someone writes to Dear Abby, saying his friend or relative is addicted to alcohol and drugs.  The friend thinks nothing is wrong with him, but doesn’t realize the damage his addiction is causing to his relationship with his friends, family, and significant other.  Invariably, all Abby can advise the writer is that – as much as he’d like to believe otherwise – he can't change or rescue his friend or loved one from their problem.  Only the friend can change and, unless he admits he has a problem, there’s nothing that anyone can do.

Whip Whitley (Denzel Washington) is exactly like that.  Whitley is a boozing airline captain whose alcoholism has never affected his flying.  After a night of heavy drinking and sex with a stewardess, he flies a plane to Georgia and encounters heavy turbulence.  Before take-off he sneaks some vodka in his orange juice.  Everything seems to go smoothly until mechanical failure puts the plane on a deadly collision course.  By some miracle, he crash-lands the plane and only six people die (including the stewardess with which he was having the affair). 

He is declared a hero by the media, but the NTSB learns he may have been intoxicated on the plane (his blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit at the time he flew).  Whitley insists it was mechanical failure, not alcohol, that caused the loss of those lives.  He tries hard to quit drinking, but he succumbs to his vice whenever the feeling is too strong.  He soon alienates everyone around him, including his new girlfriend (Kelly Reilly), a recovering drug addict whom Whitley rescued from a predatory landlord.  Eventually, he finds himself faced with a tough ethical decision before an inquiry board.

Whitley is an infuriating character to watch, a feeling made worse by the helplessness the other characters feel.  Whitley promises himself and others many times he’ll quit drinking, but he can’t do it.  After his stay in the hospital, he junks the dozen or more bottles and cans of booze as well as the marijuana, but it's not too long before he makes a trip to the convenience store to buy a twelve-pack.  It's infuriating to see him trying to persuade the crew not to reveal the bad stuff, even stooping so low to coach the other stewardess at her colleague's funeral.  He tells his attorney (Don Cheadle) and the NTSB many times that it was a mechanical failure, which is true, and his toxicology reports are ruled inadmissible due to a technicality.  But it doesn't excuse his drinking, and only further drives his denial and arrogance.  His unwelcome appearance at his ex-wife's house garnered sympathy from me, but not the kind that Whitley wanted; I felt sorry for his ex-wife and son, whose house is routinely surrounded by news vans and reporters.  The news media hails him as a hero, but a real hero would own up to his problems and seek help.  Whitley is a coward.

The other characters can be easily sympathized with, and this is from where the unexpected doses of humor germinate.  John Gatins’ screenplay turns the exasperation these characters face into something funny and what a lot of people with friends in dire need of help may relate to.  When Whitley indulges in booze in the early hours before the federal hearing that will determine his fate, his attorney and security detail get mad, but their exasperated reactions, combined with Whitley's enabling friend (John Goodman) create chuckles.  Gatins’ script does not in any way, shape, or form make fun of alcoholism.  The humor comes from how the characters react to it.  

The flying sequence is a masterwork.  The constricted spaces in both the cockpit and cabin make everything feel so close, which ramps up the intensity felt in the bumpy camera mobility and the unpredictable cutting.  Everything feels so close, that when the plane hits the ground, you can distinctly feel the impact.  With few exceptions when the plane is inverted, cinematographer Don Burgess's camera stays inside, the only view of the outside coming from the cockpit.  When Whitley inverts the plane, the upside down camera renders it even more intense.  It’s scary enough when it’s seen from the normal right-side up angle.  But seeing an upside down image creates distortion and with it uncertainty; it’s harder to see clearly when everything is presented opposite of what you’re used to. 

If there is one thing about I disapprove of, it’s the resolution.  The way Gatins’ script arrives to it is forced, contrived, and too easy considering the stubbornness of Whitley’s character.  But as cheap as it is, thank goodness the studio and the filmmakers chose the right ending for once.

B+

Flight is currently still playing at local theaters.

A Paramount Pictures release.  Director:  Robert Zemeckis.  Screenplay:  John Gatins.  Original Music:  Alan Silvestri.  Cinematography:  Don Burgess.  Cast:  Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, and Melissa Leo.  Running time:  139 minutes.  Rated R.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.