A Review ofFlight By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Sunday, November 25, 2012.
Typically, I avoid movies about plane crashes. I could easily slide into having a phobia about flying but like to travel to places that a car can’t take me. I had an inkling that Flight would be worth my relaxing the no plane crash film, and well, Denzel Washington is in it. Flight presents Washington’s arguably finest performance in some time. It is a fitting tour de force that suggests the actor’s studied integration of all that’s he’s accumulated over the years in a film career that has made him the superstar ‘Denzel Washington’and, thankfully, an actor who can really draw us into the character he inhibits, sometimes making the iconic superstar looming so large in our consciousness at least temporarily recede.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a veteran commercial pilot who makes a stunning, successful emergency landing. He becomes an instant hero and just as quickly an anti-hero of the most complicated kind. It turns out he’s an egomaniacal drunk and cocaine user who doesn’t let flying get in the way of his daily indulgence in the excesses of alcohol and drugs. Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis and co-stars Don Cheadle and John Goodman who make their moments on screen count the way we have come to expect talented character actors to do.
Flight is a movie you ponder after leaving the theatre. It offers some breathtaking shooting and editing; the crash sequence registers as scarily real and will make other nervous flyers more so after seeing the movie. Even veterans of the sky may tense up a bit should they ever hit turbulence again. Though it is visually arresting, the more stunning spectacle is Whip’s determined self-destruction. The panoramic view of an airplane in flight at night as Whips gazes wistfully at it, an achingly long still shot of one little vodka bottle, and Washington’s engrossing, authentic portrait of a man disintegrating into alcoholic decay are the memorable ingredients of the film.
This is why it’s so disappointing that Flight undermines its depth not to mention moments of fine writing and direction by lapsing into some tired staples of popular film – not the least of which is the ridiculously obvious heterosexist framing of the major female characters.
The opening scene, which introduces a hung over Whip, makes the point. Whip awakes to a phone call from you guessed it – a nagging ex-wife and mother of his fifteen year old son whom he complains only calls when she needs money. While a hung over Whip winds his way through the call, his naked bed mate, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez),rises and begins to dress. The camera follows her body in the background, curiously blurs for a second on her ample breasts then amplifies the focus on a full frontal shot of her as she slips on panties. She ends up on Whip’s lap atop the bed for a few last seconds of sexually suggestive repartee. At one point, her breasts jangle over Whip, and that’s all we see of her. In keeping with Hollywood’s long accepted safe guarding of the sacred phallus and Denzel Washington’s preferences regarding his on-screen nudity, we don’t see Whip naked just a hint of his backside here and there.
The flight attendant does come to play a crucial role in Whip’s fate [no spoiler here]. It is unnecessary not to mention annoyingly formulaic that the camera situates her as a pretty, young, naked object with big breasts like a cheap 1970s B-grade action flick. The movie falls prey to more all too unnecessary pitfalls of contemporary Hollywoodish cinema with the insertion of the younger, hard-on-her-luck good hearted white girl junkie (Kelly Reilly) who doubles as damsel in distress and symbol of Whip’s possible redemption. Nicole and Whip’s unlikely meeting in the stairway of a hospital with an of course quirky terminally ill cancer patient becomes the prelude to something it should’ve resisted – a romance. The big moment – the massage, the look, the kiss, is almost laughable. It’s that predictable and tries too painfully hard to be the beginning of something greater than it should be.
The real story – Whip’s gleeful immersion in his addictions and arrogant denial of its consequences doesn’t need such an implausible, dry love story. A friendship might’ve worked if it didn’t insist that since she is a woman and he is a man they must have sex and really fall for each other. This is what happens when a film interrupts a great story and the performance of compelling character complexity to throw in some clichéd staples as if it’s afraid we won’t stay tuned in if there’s absolutely no female nudity or sex or the promise of a great romance with a redeemed working class kind of gal.
Flight develops like the literal and figurative ride it depicts. It has arresting highs and some unnecessary lows. It overstays its welcome a tad by not knowing where to end and in a strange, jarringly overt nod to one of Washington’s most iconic roles, Whip actually echoes Malcolm X in one of the last scenes [the line, place, and circumstances? No spoiler here]. You’ll have to take the bumpy yet memorable ride that Flight offers.
Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas : Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, andBest African American Essays, among others. Her most recent work includes articles about contemporary black film representation and Tyler Perry films.