A huge pet peeve of mine is when people romanticize bygone years. They’ll say, “Things were simpler way back when. People were more moral. By gosh, a cup of coffee was one dollar!” My counter is that things were simpler way back whenever because you knew less. You’re talking about a time when you didn’t know as much about the complexities of how the world functions. Maybe you grew up and your parents quit paying for your rent. Or maybe you realized it’s not the Eisenhower administration anymore, and you have to recognize that women, racial minorities, and LGBTQI people have the same rights as you. Things have never been simple. It’s that attitude that gets us easy caricatures. Sometimes, those caricatures result in pirates who don’t resemble pirates. Hollywood thrives off of this.
For instance, take Mad Men. We love Don Draper and Roger Sterling because they booze all day without consequence, dress like kings, have maximum swagger, and are still great at their jobs. They’re pirates. Or undergrads.
It doesn’t necessarily translate into the real world, however, and that is where Flight takes . . . off. Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a straight-up badass who finishes last night’s beer while watching a sexy Puerto Rican flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) saunter around his apartment naked. He substitutes cocaine for coffee and heads to work, staggering his arrival with Katerina’s so as to not arouse suspicion. There’s turbulence during takeoff, but then things even out thanks to some expert navigation from Whip. He then address the passengers, talking into a speaker with one hand while dumping vodka into an orange juice gallon with the other.
The plane breaks apart midair. Whitaker flips it upside down, stabilizing it (metaphor alert). It lands in the backyard of a church, and only eight people are killed. We are told that if anyone other than Whitaker been flying, close to 200 souls would have been lost. What follows is Whitaker’s struggle with the—ahem—fallout of the accident: he tries to avoid prison, get sober, reconcile with his family, and make peace with himself. It’s standard Oscar bait, but it resists the easy resolution of “does he get sober or not?” The movie is more layered and intricate than a simple redemption tale/tragedy.
The point of the film, to me, is that there are certain people we look up to. We admire pilots, doctors, judges, high-ranking military officials, high-ranking politicians. We admire them because they “do the hard jobs” and “sacrifice so much.” We also admire singers, athletes, and fantastic archetypes like superheroes, heist masterminds, pirates, and martial arts masters because they “are so badass” and “if I were given the right opportunity, dude, goddamn I could be John McClane.” The latter group is a pile of archetypes. The former group is a bunch of people we trust with our lives every day. Captain Whitaker is confused about which group he belongs to.
You expect a pilot to shepherd you safely from Point A to Point B. Captain Whitaker, despite his breakfast of beer and cocaine and screwdrivers, expects to land his plane safely and suffer no consequences for his recklessness. These are two different types of arrogance, and they’re very much in conflict. Whitaker is constantly testing the boundaries: Can he address the passengers while mixing himself a drink? Can he nap while a co-pilot he’s never met previously works the controls? The very nature of his work highlights the basic truth of tomorrow not being guaranteed. Yet Whitaker lives as though tomorrow is another chance to improve.
To some extent, that’s the way we all live. Unfortunately, like most addicts, Whitaker alternates between tossing liquor down the toilet and hiding a bender from his lawyer. The central conflict is realizing he’s not a swaggering Errol Flynn. Even if he is good enough to get away with breaking the rules 90% of the time, the other 10% will send him to prison.
All of that, however, is standard Oscar-grab stuff. It’s personal struggle, standard Hollywood redemption type storytelling. It’s excellent, extremely well-executed, and riveting, but a couple of things in Flight go relatively unexplored:
1) It’s strongly implied that the plane Whitaker was flying that day was in disrepair. Nothing was done to address the repair issue. So why isn’t the airline in more trouble here? Yes, a drunken pilot is worrisome, but we’re told that no one could land the plane like Whitaker. If the plane is broken, it should be fixed. And what if the pilot is more sober but less competent than Whip? Shouldn’t that be more terrifying? Why isn’t there some sort of Erin Brockovich running around trying to sue the airline out of business?
2) Instead of a strong female co-star, we get a severely underdeveloped sort of love interest: Kelly Reilly’s Nicole, an ex-junkie with whom Whip shares a smoke in the hospital stairwell. They have a halfhearted romantic relationship, but surprise! Whip’s alcoholism drives her away. Their romantic subplot is basically the CliffsNotes version of Crazy Heart. It doesn’t quite feel fully realized, and it wastes a solid performance from Reilly, which only heightens the feeling of “Oscar grab for Denzel.”
The Crazy Heart comparison feels apt, because they are both movies about one man’s struggle with alcoholism. Both are Oscar grabs, and both belong in everyone’s DVD library. Flight is an excellent film. It keeps you riveted for two and a half hours, which is a rare feat for such a personal drama. I wonder, though, what it could have been if it had involved more than just Denzel. Not that his performance is subpar (it’s superb), and not that Whitaker’s story is dull (it’s sneakily nail biting), but what if the ending was the end of Act II? What if more was made of the faulty plane equipment? What Whitaker’s wife, son, and two mistresses (Katerina and Nicole) were more developed?
I may be asking too much. And I get it: It’s Whitaker’s story. He has to come to terms with his responsibility to the world. What happens on screen is completely earned and very satisfying. All I’m saying is that the film could have reached for more.