Monday, March 18, 2013

Would You Like to Fly/In My Beautiful Private Hell?

327) Flight (2012) Dir: Robert Zemeckis Date Released: November 2, 2012 Date Seen: October 25, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5

Been a while since I saw Flight, but I was rewatching it out of the corner of my eye when my family rewatched it. My sister's negative reaction to the film made me realize just how much I love Flight (ie: I characteristically got defensive). Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins's vision of an agnostic's toxic combination of alcoholism and survivor's guilt is exciting because it's not as clear-cut as it seems. This is the kind of character study I love, the kind that doesn't let its hero off the hook too lightly, but rather shows us events with some much-needed perspective, while not being entirely sympathetic to its subject's plight. Still, I get it: the creative decisions that rankle many of my peers' nerves are some of the film's most boisterous, and therefore the easiest to misinterpret. For example, when "Sympathy for the Devil" accompanies the entrance of Harling Mays, John Goodman's sleazy supporting character, it's not a celebratory moment. When Harlin's introduced, the music is an expression of his self-fashioned/inflated ego, so of course it makes him look like temptation incarnate. And the second time "Sympathy for the Devil" plays, Harling's come to rescue poor, strung-out Whip Whitaker (an equally impressive Denzel Washington). These music cues are not pat endorsements.

In fact, I'd go farther and say that that kind of self-deflating music cue is as cruelly funny as it is because the joke is, in a small way, on the viewer. Harling's only admirably diabolical if you ignore the consequences of his actions. Sure, Goodman's character is suave and lovably shrill enough to be charismatic, but well, he's also a drug dealer. It's worth belaboring that point since so much of Flight is about remaining committed to one's own decisions. This is why Zemeckis has no love for Whip's co-pilot's religious zealotry. Religion isn't a bad thing in Flight, just when it's taken to such an extreme that prayer becomes a substitute for personal responsibility. Doubt, on the other hand, is very spiritual, and you see that in the way that Whip looks at a stewardess that he tries to get hustle (while she's at church, no less). Whip's desperate, but the film's lithe tracking do a great job of replicating the wide berth that Whip's fairly cushy position in life has afforded him. Zemeckis shows us how much rope Whip has to hang himself. Whip's allowed to do so much and go to so many places because he's been afforded so much responsibility (even if he ignores his duty, to his passengers, his son, his wife, himself, etc.). Zemeckis does a fantastic job of visualizing the freedom that Whip has been granted: when Whip boards his plane, or when he's surveying the crash from a hydraulic stage, or when he's in a huge airplane hangar, and is told that nobody could do what he did, not even while sober.

The circumstances that leads to Whip's actions are simultaneously mysterious and explicably frustrating because they are and they aren't entirely just his problems. I like that when he falls off the wagon before testifying, the door to the hotel room that's adjacent to his wafts open on its own. But from that point on, Whip's decisions are his own. I also like that Zemeckis makes us gasp when Whip grabs a bottle, and lets us fear the worst about hero for a couple seconds before rejoining him hours later. It's not a dirty trick if it's effective, and Zemeckis does a good job of pulling the rug out from under his audience, making a shocking personal decision that much more shocking. I don't think that this jump cut makes Whip look like a monster, and I don't think that the abrupt-ness of this cut makes Whip's decision any less worthy of viewers' empathy. Quite the contrary, I think Zemeckis's selective brusqueness makes Whip's story that much more traumatizing: the door to the next-door hotel room wafts open gracelessly, and Whip's grasping hand also closes with a bump. Flight is moving because it is essentially ambiguous, save for the happy ending Whip earns for himself. There's typically a considerable amount of weight to characters' actions, because there's almost always a catch.

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