Friday, November 2, 2012

Flight: Absolutely soars

Flight (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for drug and alcohol abuse, profanity, nudity, sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

I can hear Rod Serling’s laconic précis, were he summoned across the bridge of time to introduce this story:

“Portrait of a man, going down for the third time ... and he doesn’t know it.”

Whip (Denzel Washington) likes Nicole (Kelly Reilly) at first sight, and the attraction is
mutual. Unfortunately, she's a recovering addict, and he remains an unrepentant
alcoholic. She's knows he'd be bad for her — perhaps even fatal — but does she
have the strength to resist him?
Flight will catch people by surprise, the same way Million Dollar Baby took its sharp turn in the third act. Advance publicity has centered on the horrific, mid-flight plane crisis, and the suggestion that something “unexpected” turns up during the subsequent investigation.

But John Gatins’ superb, richly nuanced script is much, much deeper than that; indeed, it probes into the very soul of a profoundly flawed man who expects a single heroic act to compensate for a lifetime of ill-advised behavior. Gatins’ narrative also takes intriguing detours, the first one so disorienting — as a new character is introduced — that you’ll briefly wonder if somebody added a reel from an entirely different film.

Let it be said, as well, that Flight gives Denzel Washington yet another opportunity to demonstrate his amazing range and subtlety. He’s simply fascinating to watch, even when at rest ... because that’s the thing; he never is truly at rest. His fingers twitch; his eyes dart through double-takes; he radiates the nervous tension of a caged animal waiting to bolt.

We can’t take our eyes off him. Don’t want to.

Director Robert Zemeckis, having finally shaken his obsession with motion-capture animation — The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol — returns to the probing, tightly focused, intensely intimate character drama that he delivered so well in Cast Away and Contact. This new film is a raw, unflinchingly uncomfortable portrait of a man who takes for granted his ability to remain in control, a politician’s superficial smile on his face, despite the deeply rooted rage and despair that threaten to overwhelm him.

At the same time, Zemeckis, Gatins and Washington deliver an unnervingly grim study of an alcoholic: a drama so memorable that it deserves to be placed alongside earlier classics such as The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses and Leaving Las Vegas.

Probably not what people will expect, if they’re drawn to this film by the poster art that shows a capable, if mildly anxious Washington, resplendent in his airline captain’s uniform. Like I said, this one will surprise you.

Every so often, Hollywood raises the bar on verisimilitude, when it comes to airline disasters. I still vividly recall the crash that opens 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix, which I saw as a child: so much more realistic than the overcooked nonsense of Airport and its various sequels and clones. A generation ago, a new standard was set with the crash that opened 1993’s Alive; earlier this year, The Grey offered a similarly ghastly wreck.

Zemeckis and his production team trump all those earlier efforts, and then some; Flight depicts an airline catastrophe so vivid, so terrifying — so disturbingly credible — that it’ll put people off flying the same way Jaws kept folks out of the water.

But we don’t get there right away.

Our first glimpse of Washington’s Whip Whitaker is startling: a man blasted awake one morning in a hotel room littered with empty liquor bottles, remnants of cocaine and an unselfconsciously naked woman who might be regarded as attractive, in other circumstances, but somehow looks vulgar here. The disconnect is jolting: This is the ruggedly handsome, impeccably dressed fellow in that movie poster? Really?


Next thing we know, Whip is heading for his first assignment of the day, on an ordinary mid-autumn morning: piloting SouthJet 227 from Orlando, Fla. He greets young, clean-cut co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who senses something amiss in his boss’ behavior; in-flight stewardess Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie), obviously a longstanding friendly acquaintance, greets Whip warmly.

(My wife to me, sotto voce, at this moment: “If we don’t have mandatory drug testing for all flight personnel, before every take-off, we need it right now.”

(No kidding.)

The weather is stormy, but not bad enough to preclude take-off. The ascent is bumpy and swift, Evans repeatedly questioning Whip’s audacious but, yes, ultimately savvy control decisions.

Elsewhere, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a onetime photographer turned heroin addict, scrambles around town for a fix; she finally scores after visiting a pal on a porn film set. She returns to her seedy apartment, fends off a crude advance from her seedier landlord, and eyes her needle kit with bleak, hopeless despair.

Back in the air, all hell breaks loose as the plane experiences a catastrophic mechanical malfunction. The next 10 minutes are just as shocking, if in a more horrific way, as Whip’s introduction, back in his hotel room. The packed theater during Tuesday evening’s preview screening was dead silent; everybody was transfixed.

Later, on the ground and in a hospital, Whip regains consciousness — surprisingly unscathed — and gradually perceives imminent danger, thanks to the presence of longtime friend and union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and a clearly disapproving sharpie, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who must be an attorney.

It suddenly hits home: Regardless of the miracle Whip just pulled off, regardless of his uncanny piloting intuition and heroic cockpit behavior, he’s about to be crucified by the results of a mandatory blood test whose results already are in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board. The likely upshot: serious jail time, not to mention loss of his pilot’s license.

No matter. Whip has lied his way through everything else; he can lie his way through this. After all, lying is what alcoholics do best.

Mostly to themselves.

Chance has thrown Whip into the same hospital where Nicole is recovering from her latest overdose. They meet while sneaking cigarettes in a stairwell, a scene pregnant with tension between these two, and suffused with gallows humor supplied by James Badge Dale, instantly memorable as a dying cancer patient who also wants a smoke. Dale does wonders with this brief, throwaway appearance: the sort of conspicuous performance on which long careers are built (and supporting actor Oscar nominations are granted).

The worst possible result occurs, as Whip and Nicole bond; we realize, instantly, that these two would be terrible for each other. She’s one more overdose away from certain death, and she knows it; he remains in denial, insisting that he’s “in control,” “doesn’t have a problem” and merely “drinks because [he] wants to.”

Suddenly, disconcertingly, we’re smack in Days of Wine and Roses territory. Or, pointing to a current, equally haunting example, Smashed. We think things can’t get worse. They can. They will. They do.

Reilly first hit my radar a decade ago, in L’Auberge Espagnole; she then popped up in costume dramas such as The Libertine and Pride & Prejudice before landing the role of Dr. Watson’s wife alongside Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr., in the re-booted Sherlock Holmes series. Her increasing visibility has been matched by similarly enhanced acting chops, and her work here is sublime.

Nicole is the ultimate tragic figure, trying to pull her life back together; Reilly’s nervous, haunted gaze cements Nicole’s conflicting feelings. She’s attracted to Whip, no question, but genuinely fears being sucked into his orbit.

Cheadle’s performance is equally nuanced. Lang hates Whip on sight: sees right through the man. At the same time, Lang can’t help admiring his client’s skill; then, too, Lang has been hired to do a job, no matter how distasteful he might find it. Lang emerges as another of this story’s many fascinating characters, rich with contradictions.

John Goodman delivers a memorable comic turn as Harling Mays, Whip’s spirited best friend ... and drug supplier. Goodman is larger than life, introduced on camera as he struts down a hospital corridor to the beat of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”: a figure of high camp who nonetheless may be the most honest character in this story. Mays is, unapologetically, precisely what he seems.

His relationship with Whip is equally fascinating. In a way, they’re co-dependent: Mays clearly is devoted to Whip, and yet cheerfully helps fuel all of his friend’s worst habits.

Gatins’ dialogue is pungent and intense, often rich with implication. Zemeckis, as well, makes the most of upending our assumptions at every turn. A scene between Whip, Evans and Evans’ wife (Bathany Anne Lind, also memorable in a brief scene) is fraught with tension, almost scary; we expect it to move in one direction, and then it becomes chilling for an entirely different reason.

Throughout everything, though, we’re constantly drawn to Washington: his furtive glances, his nervous bearing, his cocky arrogance. We come to fear Whip’s persuasive manner and broad smiles, even as they fascinate us.

At 138 minutes, Flight feels a bit overlong and self-indulgent, although Zemeckis and editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll never lose their grip on the rising tension. This is a harrowing, totally compelling and absolutely unforgettable drama: one that will make you swear off flying and drinking.

For the past few weeks, Argo appeared to have the upcoming Academy Awards race to itself. The field just got a lot more interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment