50th New York Film Festival: ‘Flight’ – 14 October 2012

In Flight, the cool, charismatic pilot, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) performs miraculous aviation feats in landing a defective plane, saving almost every passenger and crew member. In simulated tests in the following investigation, all other pilots crashed the plane killing everyone on board. But it turns out, Whitaker had a blood alcohol content of .24 and cocaine coasting through his system.

Flight previewed on October 14, 2012, the final day of the 50th New York Film Festival. In a post-screening panel discussion, writer John Gatins explained, “I wanted to come into the last turn of the script thinking, I’m not sure what I’m rooting for. You know this guy did this amazing thing and saved all these lives. Did he earn this pass even though he did commit a felony by being high and drunk on the plane?”

If convicted in criminal court for the deaths that occurred, Whitaker could spend the rest of his life in prison. “I wanted to create that kind of dilemma for audiences to kind of think, I’m not certain if he lies, if I’ll feel good or bad about that,” said Gatins.

Robert Zemeckis, the director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and the co-writer and director of Back to the Future brings his signature flair of visually telling riveting stories, despite a certain predictability of plot and simple, moral lessons of higher truths. At the festival, Zemeckis did not highlight the plane’s flying upside-down, with passengers inverted in seat belts and a flight attendant heroically crawling on the roof to assist a child. He did not cite the challenges of filming the carry-on luggage as it tumbled from the stowed compartments without causing injuries.

Instead Zemeckis said he was attracted to the moral ambiguity of the characters and different scenes. “I think that Whip’s substance abuse is basically a symptom of what his real problem is, and his real problem is having this disconnect from everyone and everything and this sort of brokenness.”

After Whitaker crash-lands the plane, in the hospital he meets and later becomes romantically involved with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering crack addict. His friendly, blustering, loyal drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), supplies his chemical needs. In moderating the panel, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Richard Peña, asked Goodman what he most wanted to get across about his character. Goodman answered, “I think the mediocrity of being a dealer. You sell cheap drinks and think you’re providing a service but you’re not!”

Whitaker’s old friend, now the pilots union representative, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), hires a sharp lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), to prepare a vigorous defense. Although on Whitaker’s side, they resemble Mays, as a team of enablers.

Ellen Block (Melissa Leo) leads the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Leo said she found beauty in her character’s straightforward mission to discover the truth. The film asks whether truth should ever be weighed against justice. If so, where would integrity lie in this balance?

This film about a pilot with an addiction is filled with easy symbolism: downward spiraling, turning upside-down, soaring, flying and being set free, complete with imagery of a religious, higher authority above the law. In an emergency landing in a field, the plane disrupts a Pentecostal gathering, slicing off the cross of a church steeple. Characters discuss the well-known insurance and legal term, “Acts of God.” Whitaker looks at the devastation of the accident scene and asks, “Whose God would do this?”

Don Burgess, the director of photography, who worked on Forrest Gump and Cast Away, this time with Denzel Washington creates the physical presence of the invisible devil. Together they bottle the demons of being human – addiction, obsession, that which irresistibly attracts us to overcome reason and compels us down a knowingly self-destructive route. The banging of an unlocked door blowing in a draft becomes desire and temptation. Eerily lit like a Christmas ornament, the glow of a mini bar Ketel One vodka bottle conveys language without words. Washington’s subdued acting never descends to over-exaggerated caricature. He thus conveys a more powerful reality. When asked about his dramatic method in portraying dislikable characters, Washington, with a smile, simply said about Whitaker, “I liked the guy. A couple of beverages short.”

As for actual pilots’ reactions, Gatins said those he spoke with viewed the film favorably. However, Peña with humor noted, “I think we can expect that we won’t be seeing this movie in-flight.”

Zemeckis laughed and added, “I was willing to sacrifice that market.”

Robert Zemeckis, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, John Gatins, Bruce Greenwood, Denzel Washington

Melissa Leo, John Gatins, Bruce Greenwood