Or should that be a “Delayed” review? Anyway, Robert Zemeckis’ attempted Oscar-fodder (nominated twice but won zip) is on the one hand, an absorbing drama. John Gatin’s script is full of gravity, whilst Zemeckis’ pacing keeps the experience a thrilling ride for the audience. However, the conclusion means the film, much like Flight 227, falls flat rather than delivering a greater, thought-provoking impact.
It’s as enjoyable as it sounds. Denzel Washington is Captain Whip Whitaker, a charismatic, cocaine-fuelled pilot, who after his plane falls apart in the sky, is responsible for saving almost 100 lives by landing it upside down. You could not have that as the opening for a film, and fail to be gripped. Washington is his usual absorbing self, and as surly and abusive as he might get, he’s an excellent flawed protagonist (though that was also the case in The Taking of Pelham 123, and that film was terrible).
Waking up some time later in hospital, Whip is confronted by two symbolic visitors – one a pilot union rep, who thanklessly fights Whip’s corner throughout the course of events. The other, Whip’s dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), arrives to the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil. Their relationship has a weird symmetry with another film starring both actors. Greg Hoblit’s 1999 picture Fallen featured a demonic Goodman attempting to destroy Washington’s life, by getting inside his head and bringing out the worst in him. As the finale concludes (spoiler) Washington kills Goodman, and smokes poisoned cigarettes, before allowing his own possession, to ensure the destruction of the demon. Sympathy for the Devil plays, and then the credits roll – the implication being that somehow the devil lives on.
In Flight, the use of that same song seems to connote this continued relationship – as Harling Mays fuels Whip’s self-destructive behaviour to new extremes, even bringing vodka to his hospital bed! In both films, Washington’s character is forced to end his current existence to exorcise this demon (that’s more metaphorical in Flight). But importantly, this self-sacrificial-hero complex serves to sanctify a set of values that the character of Captain Whitaker comes to embody; those American ideological staples of self-determination and individual accountability. Those themes come to wash away other questions about corporate recklessness or what might drive people to live like Whitaker – meaning Flight ultimately becomes a grand ideological fable of American capitalism.
Of course, the film does to some extent talk about the corner-cutting of billionaire air-companies, whose lapse attitudes toward health and safety led to a plane falling out of the sky, and the death of several passengers and employees thanks to a dodgy screw. The film also brings up the issue that the families of the flight staff aren’t entitled to compensation as “They don’t count. They work knowing the risks of flying.” But this utterance is a one off – and falls well short of addressing the issue – instead it’s simply played out as wall-paper for the true act of individual heroism – Captain Whitaker’s confession.
Whip’s tearful admission of alcoholism is supposed to take on an air of selfless sacrifice – to preserve the name of his colleague who died saving a child – but in order to preserve his own honour code, he takes actions that completely absolve the air-company of blame for the incident! It takes on a distasteful, tabloidy vibe, that pilot union reps and health and safety bodies might provide all manner of excuses for a flight’s failure – but really only the individual at the helm during a crash can be truly responsible for it. Never mind corporate recklessness, never mind the fact that recklessness and a lack of basic employment rights might drive staff to alcohol abuse to cope, the pilot was a drunk by his own choice – all systemic problems are irrelevant! He’s taken responsibility so corporate America wont have to. What a hero.
This plays out as a crude antithetical parody of real life; when Captain Chesley Sullenberger – the pilot who brought his plane safely down in the Hudson river, saving 100s of lives – went from hero to villain for complaining about the vicious pay-cuts pilots and flight-staff have to contend with from their bosses. Rather than simply accept individual plaudits, “Sully” wanted to use his prominence to fight for better pay and conditions for his industry as a whole, something brilliantly pointed out in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, complete with stories about pilots subsisting on food-stamps.
In the case of Flight, the ending is far more comfortable for the CEOs of America – Whip is reconciled with their ideology as a flawed maverick hero – who accepts ultimate responsibility on an individual level. There is no real systemic reason beyond marital-breakdown (that old chestnut) for his alcoholism, and no difficult questions are asked of cheap-buck, profit-before-people capitalism. The film ends up canonising not only Whip’s noble assumption of culpability then, but of the concept of self-determination and negative ‘liberty’. For me, that’s where Flight takes a nose-dive, and even the heroics of Whip Whitaker couldn’t stop it falling out of the sky on this occasion.
Flight is currently airing on Sky Movies, but can be found in their ‘On Demand’ section, on DVD, or illegal streaming sites.