Theres a recurring theme in current American cinema and it goes like this: a patrician figure is forced to confront his own vulnerability – will he surrender? Perhaps its a parable of the USs tenuous status as a world power, but its little wonder it get so much traction when it offers Hollywood males such interesting parts. Mickey Rourke in the The Wrestler and Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, were two of the stand out performances of the last few years. And now we can add Denzel Washingtons turn as Whip Whitaker to the ultimate fin de siecle triple bill.
Flight is the most straightforwardly entertaining of the set, the least bleak. Director Robert Zemeckis, maker of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future I&II, is deeply interested in stirring his audiences emotions. But hes also an intelligent filmmaker, wary of unalloyed sentiment. Gump, for all its box-o-chocolates hokiness, is a movie about an innocent surviving the great American tragedies of the 20th Century. And even if Back to the Future is a safe PG you dont exactly have to turn it upside down and shake it to find its Freudian subtext.
Flight, by contrast, wears its jadedness right up front.
The film opens as Whip wakes in a wrecked hotel room with a naked woman and line of cocaine. What could be just a great morning becomes more troubling when we see him put on his uniform and go out to pilot a passenger jet. When disaster strikes Whip manages to save his plane in way that no other man could despite being, or perhaps because he is, drunk and high at the time. But will he be proclaimed a hero or locked up forever on the basis of his colourful toxicology reports?
The dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous is very much in evidence in this movie, in fact it provides its title and its narrative arc. Whip is, in the words of AAs central text, in full flight from reality. While he wears the actual crisis relatively lightly, its aftermath shines light on his denial. Maintaining the lie that he chooses to drink exacts a terrible toll both on him and the people close to him. In a way the plane crash is only the precursor of his own disaster, which we sense hell find much harder to deal with.
Washingtons performance pulls no punches. His face, which has grown doughy over the years, is stubborn and truculent. He manages the complexity of Whips character, his deviousness, as well as his self-pity, extremely well. Hes also ably supported. English actress Kelly Reilly is disarming as his love interest (she does American white trash even better than Emily Blunt) and John Goodman provides comic relief as his coke dealer.
Some may baulk at the films ending. The AA narrative allows Zemeckis to make a film that is adult in its themes, but almost childlike in its demands on our sympathy. To go the other way (as Herzog does in Bad Lieutenant) seems like the more sophisticated choice. But perhaps its sometimes braver to do the dumb thing.
Id go see this film in the cinema. After all, youre unlikely to catch it on a plane.