Sunday, February 10, 2013


Movie melodramas about self-destructive drunks/addicts are among the most predictable of genre films. They usually follow one of two standard formulas: (1) downward spiral ending in death or despair; or (2) downward spiral culminating in redemption and cure, or at least the strong hope of such. In the latter, our hero is saved either by his own conscience and willpower, or by the love of a good woman, or both, maybe with some divine assistance. (For female protagonists, please make suitable gender substitutions.)

To avoid the spoiler, I won't say which formula Flight follows, but you can probably guess. The movie has two distinguishing features, however, that make it worth watching. First, there is the harrowing opening sequence, which is a very competent mini-disaster-movie-within-a-movie. The heroic pilot saves most of the doomed flight's passengers by rolling the plummeting jetliner upside-down and then back over for a miraculously soft crash landing. I get the impression from James Fallows, who seems to know something about flying, that this could actually happen.

Second, there is of course Denzel Washington, who as always plays Denzel (aka "Whip" Whitaker here), but as always is so good you don't mind. And here he is super Denzelicious. As do some of his other movies, Flight suffers somewhat from the lack of a worthy foil for the power and intelligence he brings to the performance. Only somewhat, because I found his scenes with fellow addict Kelly Reilly compelling. And of course the ultimate foil for Denzel is... Denzel.

Various scenes suggested to some critics a rather lame "divine intervention" theme, as if this fictional Miracle on the Hudson really was miraculous, and perhaps the lord's intent was to save both the passengers and the drunken pilot's soul. Indeed, in his testimony before the NTSB hearing toward the end of the movie, all Whip can say about how he performed the miraculous feat is that "instinct" took over. The Hand of God?

I don't buy it for a moment. To me there is a more obvious and subversive interpretation. After a night of heavy boozing and three shots of vodka from the drink trolley, Whip was just loose and intuitive enough to let adrenaline and instinct take over. No panic, no overthinking... just the deep piloting reflexes of a cropduster's kid: it's the demon alcohol that saved all those lives.

Now there's the kind of ambiguity that doesn't fit into either formula (1) or (2)...

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