Robert Zemeckis’ Flight might almost be a disguised extension of the Tiger Woods story. As I understand it (or maybe this is just how I wish to understand it), Woods flew for years within an ever-expanding network of sexual landing strips, kept aloft by enough text messages to maintain the average high school population, presumably hidden from tabloid eyes only by significant resourcefulness and ingenuity, and all of this (and this is the key point of interpretation, I guess), far from limiting his professional capacities, was key to fuelling it, to keeping him soaring in the proverbial zone. Since it all crashed, and he was forced into contrition and humility, and (as far as we know) into re-launching himself as a good boy, he’s never been the same again. In a different world, we’d be as fascinated by the public/private alchemy as by the golf itself.
In Flight, Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a charismatic commercial airline pilot who drinks, takes drugs, and parties hard, and that’s just on the days he’s flying the plane. On a short-haul flight to Atlanta, he mixes vodka into his orange juice (executed, in a nice touch, behind his back while he’s standing in front of the cabin to reassure the passengers about the turbulence they just passed through) and then passes out, leaving it to the co-pilot. The plane experiences a catastrophic mechanical failure, and seems doomed, but Whitaker – despite the booze or because of it; who knows how things come together at such moments? – manages to control the descent by flying the plane upside-down, eventually bringing it down in a field with just six lives lost. Presumably he’s a hero, except that a toxicology report soon reveals the shape he was in. How should the moral calculus play out, when a pilot may have accomplished a miracle only because of his contempt for his most basic obligations?
This is a compelling psychological core for the film, and Washington is well up to the task, fully inhabiting the high and low extremes of Whitaker’s existence, from the kind of situation-defining charisma that hypnotizes most mere mortals caught in its orbit, to raw, un-pretty, fleshy, bottom of the barrel self-destruction. Whitaker isn’t like Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas, committed to self-destruction – he thrives on what he’s getting away with, on placing himself as close as possible to going over the edge, and then somehow defying genetic gravity to pull himself upright. At one point in the film, when he’s been sober for a series of days and supposedly committed to staying that way, he opens a hotel minibar and marvels at the contents. We marvel at them too – it’s like a gorgeous city of light. Absolutely no one in the audience will be surprised by how that episode turns out.
At a couple of points, the movie mulls over the meaning of such extreme life experiences, grouping Whitaker with a drug addict and a terminal cancer patient as prisms for belief in God. At times like these, and in an unusually frank opening section for a mainstream release nowadays, the film feels like it might take us somewhere dark and unchartered, into a spiritual turbulence leaving us no way out. Unfortunately though, much of what surrounds these aspects of the film is conventional and overly tidy, in exactly the same way you encounter in one Hollywood film after another. These familiar sins include, for instance, an incoherent approach to the timeline – it’s impossible to know at times whether events are separated by a day or by several months or more – and by a lack of interest in the institutional complexity of such a major event: in real life, someone in Whitaker’s situation would surely spend hours and days being grilled in endless detail, but in Flight, the debriefing seems to last an aggregate of about five minutes. Likewise, the climactic public hearing on the crash investigation is structured more like a bite-sized 60 Minutes segment than an actual meeting.
As I say, there’s nothing unusual about these simplifications, and I know they’re necessary in keeping the story to a manageable length. But that’s only because the story, ultimately, turns out to be another tale of redemption, steering us to one of the most over-visited of cinematic hubs. It’s not the most galvanizing of arrival points, and certainly doesn’t do much justice to the film’s strengths.
For another example, the same weekend I saw the film, the media was preoccupied with the resignation of the admired C.I.A. chief, David Petraeus, after it came out he’d been having an affair with his biographer. It doesn’t sound like Obama really wanted to accept the resignation, and the reporting and commentary on the matter seemed coloured by several shades of disappointment. The reason most often put forward for the necessity of his stepping down was the position’s heightened sensitivity and susceptibility to blackmail and the like, but it’s hard to see how that could be a practical issue for something already out in the open. For most of those involved, perhaps including Petraeus himself, I’m not sure there was much more to it than, well, that’s just what you have to do. Meanwhile, The New York Times published a piece on Allen Dulles, possibly “the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived,” who led the CIA in the 1950’s despite having had dozens of affairs. “By today’s standards,” concludes the writer, “this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the C.I.A., much less lead it.” Similar observations have been made, of course, about some of the greatest presidents, including FDR and JFK. But surely no one wishes our current “standards” could be retrospectively applied to strike them from the history books. (By the way, I believe golf TV ratings have generally plummeted since Tiger stopped winning).
No doubt, the Petraeus incident is only a heightened example of how human interaction is controlled and conditioned by more conventions than we can keep track of – some of them still incrementally useful, others just dance steps we keep on repeating even though the original accompanying music died out long ago. But when these conventions require a sacrifice that no one seems entirely sure is for the greater good of things, it ought to provide a teachable moment, especially in the immediate wake of an election generally viewed as a positive step for liberal social values. Maybe Hollywood is just too morally compromised a community ever to make films that provide much of a reference point for such elevated conversations, but Flight is at least halfway there, and that’s not too bad.