Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Flight (2012) – Review

Review: Flight is a very good character study that plays a bit like a wakeup call. The film is about an airline pilot Whip Whitaker who struggles with alcoholism. However, on this day, showing up drunk for work (as usual), Whip saves the lives of many people when he is able to successfully crash-land a plane after it malfunctions and goes into a dive. Heralded as a hero, Whip must decide if he wants to keep lying or face the truth about his alcoholism.

Director Robert Zemeckis structures the film in an interesting way. It opens in such a manner to present Whip as both a villain and a hero. The first scene of the film sees Whip awaken on the morning in which he is to pilot a flight drunk and taking a hit of cocaine, looking a complete mess. However, Zemeckis juxtaposes that to Whip leaving the hotel in his pilot’s uniform and aviators looking completely confident and the part of someone good at what they do. These first two images of Whip set up his whole character, and draw the audience in as well. The audience can see that he is a mess, but he is also more than competent at his job and thus is able to handle his lifestyle, which thus allows the audience to like him. It is really this juxtaposition right at the beginning that makes the film so successful. The audience is completely engaged in the story and the character of Whip – the nude woman, drunkenness and line of cocaine drew them in and the sheer bravado of Whip in his pilot’s outfit made them like him (regardless of his vices).

Zemeckis then creates one of the most compelling cinematic moments of 2012 with the plane crash. He keeps the camera in the plane, putting the audience right there in the action (almost claustrophobically – only leaving to focus on Nicole’s story in the early moments). By doing this, he both allows the audience to see the heroism (or at least extreme competence) of Whip as a pilot, even drunk, and creates an even stronger bond between them and Whip, which then allows him to let Whip fall with the audience still behind him and still liking, even respecting him. The scene itself is quite jarring (and completely brilliant).

Now that Zemeckis has his audience, the film becomes a character study (and to some extent a parable or wakeup call). The film explores alcoholism (and really addiction in general) and the effects it has on those afflicted with it and the cost both to the alcoholic and those around them. Whip believes he is in control of his drinking and cannot get out of his own way, leading him down a very self-destructive path. However, because Zemeckis has the audience so aligned with Whip, they still are behind him even after each step backwards. They want to see him redeemed. This is why the film is so powerful in its message and why it may even serve as a wakeup call to some viewers. Regardless of how well someone can live with their addiction (Whip for example lands a plane while drunk when every other pilot sober would have killed everyone on the plane trying to get out of the dive), time is against them and eventually their addiction will catch up with them (which is also played out in Nicole’s story). And because Whip is so likable, the film’s message seems all the more convincing and relatable (instead of just focusing on junkies, which is what the subgenre often does, which are not as involving to the general moviegoer).

The film does have some issues as well, holding it back from being among the elite films of 2012 (though it is on the cusp). The pacing in the middle of the film is very slow, and thus it drags a bit. This is the result of two primary things. First, the plane crash sequence is so compelling and emotionally staggering that the viewer is coming down from a huge adrenalin rush (being on edge for most of the scene) and thus feels low and more susceptible to slow pacing. And second, Zemeckis wants to slow down the film and allow the audience to get to know both Whip and his disease better. He wants Whip to seemingly be heroic but continually fall and become more and more unlikable, which will thus make his redemption more powerful. However, these two elements drag the film’s pacing down noticeably. That said, the character work done in the second act (even with the slow pacing) does payoff in a very meaningful way during the film’s resolution, and thus maybe it was worth it. Whip’s decision (leading to his redemption) is also a bit forced from a logical standpoint (which could take away from the film for some viewers), but in terms of his journey it makes perfect sense.

Flight is among the year’s best character pieces. It works as both a Hollywood prestige film (as it should garner some awards buzz, especially for its actors) and as a study of what alcoholism (addiction) does to people (in a much more relatable way). It is a very good film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Robert Zemeckis has made many of our favorite films, including: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forest Gump, and Cast Away. I think Flight can be added to that list. Zemeckis showcases his talents as a director in the film by playing with the expectations of the audience. Often, his camera shows us an image, evoking a feeling or thought, and then pulls back or pans revealing more of the image completely changing that feeling or thought (for example: Nicole and Whip have a fight and we expect that she will leave in the night – Zemeckis shows us Whip sleeping in his bed with an empty space next to him and we think our thought is confirmed and she has left, then he pulls back and she is in the doorway of the room, suddenly he has changed our expectations, then he pulls back again to reveal that she has her bags packed and is indeed leaving, again managing and playing with the audience’s expectations and emotions – if you watch the film again, look out for these types of reveals as there are many, subconsciously manipulating the audience). I, for one, am very happy to have him back making fantastic live-action films.

Alan Silvestri’s score does a great job of underscoring the emotions of the film. It has a very downbeat tone, which mirrors the tragedy of the plane crash and Whip’s fall. The more blustering moments are accompanied by wonderful classic rock and R&B, which works incredibly well further juxtaposing particular images and moments. Don Burgess’s cinematography and Nelson Coates’s production design is also very good. The film needs to feel very grounded and realistic, given the nature of the character journeys it explores. The work of Burgess and Coates very much gives it that realistic space for the characters to occupy (but it is nothing flashy or overly artistic – it fits the tone of the film perfectly however).

The acting in the film is phenomenal. Melissa Leo, John Goodman (who thunders in to steal the attention of the audience a couple times) and especially James Badge Dale (who is brilliant in a tiny role that completely changes and sets the stage tonally for the rest of the film) are fantastic in small supporting roles. The brunt of the dramatic work, however, is down by the film’s main two actors. Kelly Reilly is great as Nicole, giving maybe her best performance of her career (appearing in her biggest prestige movie role to date). The beginning of her story is her lowest moment, which allows her to be a very redemptive character and positive influence in Whip’s life. She also gives the audience a relatable perspective, as she too is behind him (reinforcing the audience’s commitment, which again allows the message the film offers to be more moving). Denzel Washington has given many wonderful performances in his career. Playing Whip in this can be added to that list. Here, he brings his usual swagger and confident demeanor to a character that is also tragic and has an immutable sadness to him. It is very compelling work.

Summary & score: Flight has a message (as many character pieces do), but it also very entertaining. It is the kind of prestige film that shows that Hollywood can still make great, important and meaningful movies. 8/10

1 comment:

  1. Denzel sure takes flight in this film. It't not easy to watch his descent into alcholic despair but it's a performance that's fantastic.