A big, edgy PSA for Alcoholics Anonymous?
I finally caught Flight, the much talked about Denzel Washington vehicle. What stuck with me most is the thinness of the character, his one dimensional alcoholism that infects pretty much every scene of the movie. Rather than adding sufficient complexity and making the story seem more real, the incessant drive for alcohol and self-destruction sort of makes the plot obvious and predictable. The one-dimensional label may be inaccurate, as “Whip” has at least two dimensions: he’s a spooky talented pilot as well as a self-destructive alcoholic.
We never get much background on either situation however. Other than the expected interpersonal problems, Denzel’s alcoholism doesn’t seem to grow out of anything in particular. His upbringing and development are non-existent. As for his flying skills, there is one passing throwaway line about being in the Navy at one point. And?
What helped make the film work for audiences was a unique in-flight emergency. The plane fails in a spectacular fashion, and only the most radical, insane maneuver can save it. As for the technical details, I’m not at all sure they got that right either, as every system on the aircraft starts failing at once without adequate explanation. Be that as it may, we’re sold on the radical maneuver, the incredible flying and the big save – of most of the passengers. A few die in the crash.
This plane crash centerpiece reminded me instantly of another film, one that did affect me: Fearless (1993). In Fearless, Jeff Bridges walks away from a devastating plane crash without a scratch, and the survivor’s guilt is so powerful that it changes his entire life on the psychological and even on the physical level. A magical realism elevates the film to another plane, a magic that is nowhere to be found in Flight.
Flight is more of a character study. But the character they’ve concocted is pretty much a dead horse, except for the flying sequence. So, is this a movie of the week that got lucky and spiced up with sex and drugs? You tell me.
Another film that comes to mind of a broken character, an alcoholic drug abuser with complexity, and an interesting story line is Postcards From the Edge (1990). This was Carrie Fisher’s (Princess Leia’s) “semi-autobiographical” novel transformed into a feature film featuring Meryl Streep like we had never seen her before. Postcards shows a struggling alcoholic trying to be a better person, much like Flight, but the tone is comedic and spontaneous, and not so suffocating.
So many stories have centered on human frailty and trying to overcome one’s demons that the field is always open to another contender, if it can shine a light where one hasn’t poked before. I don’t think Flight does so. Perhaps it comes close, but no spliff. The plane incident does not provide sufficient novelty in my opinion to elevate this story to a place among the best of them. Denzel’s performance is expectedly compelling, but I don’t think the material was sincere enough. It had a paint by numbers, cynical undertone that grated on me and left me underwhelmed.
The litmus test: I could watch Fearless or Postcards again and again, but have no desire to revisit Flight.