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Flight Review: A Ruinous Failure of Expectation Versus Reality

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 2, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | November 2, 2012 |

The Movie I Expected to See Based on the Marketing — Denzel Washington stars as Whip, a veteran pilot who had a couple of drinks the night before a flight. During the flight, the plane malfunctions, and Whip miraculously saves 96 of the 102 “souls aboard” with some creative, bold, and courageous flying. Unfortunately, the airline — in attempt to save its own ass — demonizes Whip and endeavors to make him the scapegoat for the deaths of six people in order to avoid its own liability. Don Cheadle plays the corporate suit tasked with casting blame on Whip. Through determination, resolve, a few studio-film contrivances, and his best friend and biggest defender — played by John Goodman, in a kooky, wasted three-scene role — Whip proves that — despite a negligent amount of alcohol in his system — he’s the only reason that 96 people survived. He is anointed a hero, the music swells, and the airline awards Whip a huge settlement, but more importantly, an apology.

The Movie I Actually Saw — Denzel Washington stars as Whip, a veteran pilot with a long history of alcohol and drug abuse. The morning after a bender, in which Whip sleeps with one of his flight attendants, Whip knocks back a few more, does a couple of lines of coke, then climbs aboard his plane and downs some more vodka during the flight. Due to a plane malfunction, Whip miraculously saves 96 of the 102 souls aboard, despite being blitzed out of his head. John Goodman — in a kooky role — plays his cocaine dealer. Don Cheadle plays the corporate suit working for the pilot’s union in an attempt to save Whip’s ass. Despite the plane crash, and despite developing a romantic relationship up with a recovering heroin addict, Whip persists in drinking himself into a stupor, and over the course of the next 100 minutes or so, continues a downward spiral until he finally reaches rock bottom at the most inopportune moment available. Ultimately, he credits God and Alcoholics Anonymous for saving him.

Very few movies have been as disappointing versus the expectations that marketing established for us than Flight. I had expected, like anyone who’d seen the trailer and television spots for Flight, a studio contrived, feel-good legal drama pitting an underdog against corporate overlords that would perhaps be elevated above formula by another powerful performance from Denzel Washington.

What I did not anticipate, however, was an incredibly expensive public service announcement for the 12-Step Program, or a movie about the random, unexplained nature of “God’s plan.” Flight is an addiction drama, not a legal one, and it’s not a very good addiction drama, at that. Besides the plane crash, it’s a fairly generic movie about substance abuse, replete with all the usual addiction tropes. Denzel is serviceable in the role, but it’s not a part designed for Washington. He’s best when he’s playing the noble hero with the winning smile or the over-the-top bad-ass villain with the winning smile. Denzel should be shot from below to highlight what an immensely commanding and imposing figure he cuts. What Denzel Motherf*cking Washington should not be playing is a sniveling, lying drunk shot reduced to trying to beg good people into lying on his behalf.

Screenwriter John Gatins does not employ a particularly good framing device for an addiction drama, either. If a sauced pilot is in a plane crash that kills six people — and very nearly could’ve killed all on board — that should be the moment that opens an alcoholic’s eyes. That should be rock bottom. When a film begins with a scene as dramatic as a disastrous plane crash, however, there’s no where left for director Robert Zemeckis to go in search for that life-affirming epiphany. Two solid hours of watching a man sober up, relapse, stumble around incoherently, swear off booze, relapse, throw a violent tantrum, and refuse to admit a problem does not create enough space after the dramatic impetus that sets the story in motion and the ultimate redemption to avoid anti-climax.

More criminally, however, is that Paramount’s marketing department promised us one movie and delivered us a sermon. Maybe if Flight had transcended the subject material, I’d understand why Paramount attempted to sell it to a broader audience. But Flight is a Lifetime movie with a better hook and, admittedly, a superior cast. But neither the hook nor the solid performances are enough to elevate Flight above what it is: A hackneyed drama about one man coming to terms with his alcohol addiction.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.