Flight delivers, in spades, exactly what you think it will, including some of the most spectacular and wrenching action sequences I’ve ever seen. But Zemeckis shuffles the deck, to mixed results, by giving us what we expect but not in the sequence in which we’ve grown to expect it, crafting a film that is likely much smarter than its audience. It is likely that many if not most moviegoers, lured in by the idea of a big action flick, wandered out of the film shaking their heads in disappointment. Ours is simply not an intellectual environment in which a film like Flight can exist. I understand and even applaud the movie Robert Zemeckis was trying to make. The one up on the screen is deeply flawed either because he’s asking too much of his audience or asking too little.
Watching A Different Movie
The last few Denzel Washington movies had one thing in common:
the actor was far more gifted than the role he was given to
play. Director Robert Zemeckis (Glory, Forrest Gump, etc.)
shorts out a wonderfully nuanced and brave film by forcing a
thousand-amp fuse into a fifteen-amp socket, forcing us to watch,
in our imagination,
the movie Denzel should have made rather than the one actually
up on the screen. Throughout the film, I found myself annoyed
and distracted by what should have been—missed plot
opportunities, missing scenes. The film preoccupies itself with
a drug-addicted hooker Whip Whitaker—Denzel’s character—has a
chance encounter with at a hospital, but either there’s no
payoff to the relationship or that payoff is far too subtle. The
film climaxes around a change in Denzel’s character you can see
coming from the opening credit sequence—it’s hardly a surprise
and, my assumption, wasn’t intended to be. This film
was constructed not to satisfy audience expectations but to
challenge them. The lyrics to the theme song playing, from
open to close, are We know you’ve seen a thousand movies so we
won’t insult your intelligence by pretending you don’t know the
formula. Flight delivers, in spades, exactly what you think it
will, including some of the most spectacular and wrenching
action sequences I’ve ever seen. But Zemeckis shuffles the deck,
to mixed results, by giving us what we expect but not in the
sequence in which we’ve grown to expect it. By putting the
film’s signature heart-stopping action sequence up front,
Zemeckis makes the point that the film is not a robotic vehicle
about the plane but a quiet character piece about the pilot.
Without the action sequence up front, it is unlikely we would
have gone to see this movie, the actual movie Zemeckis wanted to
make, which begins after he’s scared the devil out of us.
As ridiculous as it sounds, I think the film would have performed better at the box office had it flowed the way its trailer does (see page following), with Denzel in the hospital, and proceeded apace with its nuanced character study, most of which was overshadowed not by the early flight sequences but by the audience’s expectation, from years of conditioning, that there’s to be an even more impressive flight scene bookending the film at its close. I’m sure many moviegoers walked out of Flight disappointed because they thought the film was about the plane. It is not.
Washington’s performance is, to no surprise, flawless. He breathes layer upon layer of tragically flawed humanity into Whip Whitaker, disappointing us at nearly every opportunity Whitaker has to display nobility or sacrifice. Whip’s journey is one of consecutive wrong turns, yet we can’t help but to root for him. Like much of the film’s plot, appreciating Washington’s nuanced performance requires more patience than most moviegoers have. Gone is Alonzo Harris’s twitchy swagger from Training Day or Frank Lucas’s cruel indifference in American Gangster, both of which feature louder and edgier chores for Washington. Flight features Frank Capra’s George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, a solid everyman, somehow corrupted and gone tragically wrong. Washington displays a critical sadness lurking beneath feigned indignant bravado, layers on a cake that would be compelling to watch if we weren’t so accustomed to hit-and-run flat characters from action flicks. My fear is most audiences twitched impatiently through the second and third acts, missing the truer wealth of Washington’s performance while impatiently waiting for the climactic flight scene where Washington, escorted in cuffs by a federal marshal, must assume control of a plane when its flight crew pass out from a gas leak. No kidding, that’s what I was thinking for at least part of the film, that Zemeckis would find some way to land Whip back in the captain’s chair for the big climax—a complete betrayal of logic and reason. I mean, that’s what movies are these days. And that may have been the movie many audiences were watching in their heads while Zemeckis' film was playing on the screen.
A brief word of caution to the ultra-Holy crowd: Flight opens with what I am told is a wholly gratuitous nude scene of extended duration which all but nixes the film as appropriate fare for a family night out. I've no idea if anyone under 30 even knows or cares who Denzel Washington is, but the kids will likely want to see the plane sequences and grow restless and annoying as the film trails on long afterward. I arrived late and did not see this scene, but I am a subscriber of a functional Christianity as opposed to a Pollyannaish Creampuff religion which has no appreciation for art or beauty. Film is an art form. Appreciation for art requires maturity and balance. I don't go to the movies all that much because movies these days are mostly made for teenagers and, as such, tend to suck. My Christian, if not pastoral, reservations about Hollywood require me to warn those weak in the faith of the temptation nudity or erotica presents to them, like waving an open Pabst Blue Ribbon in front of an alcoholic. Well-adjusted adults grounded in faith should be able to handle a nude woman walking past camera without going into convulsions.
My more pressing concern about the scene is how gratuitous it is, that the nudity, in and of itself, plays no meaningful role in the story. We are, thus, objectifying the woman, deriving her of the simple dignity of being human. Hollywood films are riddled with things which do not please God and do not edify us as Christians. This is why I give most of them a pass. That, and, of course, because most of them are stupid. We can be tempted by things just walking down the street. Christians cannot, have not, been commanded to go into hiding, but to live lives pleasing to God, which is what we all should strive to do. Denzel Washington is an extraordinary actor well-worth the seven bucks. Some decision, therefore, needs to be made about art and how we engage in it. That's a choice I will not defend, nor can I make for anyone else. CONTINUED