By Jared Young

Mailed on November 02, 2012

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Dear Craig Hosking

Dear Craig,

In the first act of the new film Flight - Robert Zemeckis's first live-action effort since Castaway - a jumbo jet goes careening nose-first towards the populous flatlands of middle-America, and bon-vivant pilot Whip Witaker (played by Denzel Washington), half-drunk on screwdrivers and buzzing with cocaine, must execute a spectacular, logic-defying (though plausible--right, Craig?) aerial maneuver in order to save the day.

There are no scenes of flying after these initial aeronautic acrobatics, but I sense that your influence extended beyond simply coordinating the takeoffs and landings of support craft. Since the late-80s remake of The Blob, you've contributed your piloting skills to virtually every notable film production of the last twenty-five years: from epic action films like The Dark Knight Rises to small-town comedies like Groundhog Day. You know better than anyone that flight is all about managing the interaction of opposing forces: gravity and propulsion; roll, pitch, and yaw. Get it right and the miracle of flight occurs as naturally for a jet airplane as it does for a bird. Get it wrong and 900,000 pounds of metal tumbles from the sky.

Robert Zemeckis has much to learn from someone like you. He faces a crisis of control similar to Captain Whitaker, and I wish he had handled it with equal grace. Maybe you could teach him a thing or two about working the stick.

See what I did there? The captain of a plane? The director of a film? I hate to indulge too deeply in such an easy metaphor, but the way Flight unfolds makes it unavoidable. The opposing forces Zemeckis struggles to mitigate are tonal. The tension between his attempt to breach darker spaces (indeed, there is more nudity, profanity, and drug use in the first five minutes of the film than in the entirety of Zemeckis's three decade body of work) and his congenital earnestness constantly threatens to incite laughter. There are two films occurring simultaneously, here: a fairly interesting investigative drama about the politics of blame in the aftermath of tragedy, and, woven through it, a 70s-era movie-of-the-week about the horrors of alcoholism.

This is clear from the start, as the crash that sets the narrative going is awkwardly intercut with scenes of a troubled young woman scoring drugs on the set of a porno flick (executed by Zemeckis with the sort of faux-cool bravado a desperate dad might try to muster in front of his teenage daughter's friends). There's no harmony between the rising suspense of a jet airliner falling from the stratosphere and the quiet beats of a junkie preparing to shoot up. Craig, you should have told Zemeckis that you can't roll left and yaw right if you want a smooth take-off.

But Zemeckis isn't the only one fighting to unite two very different atmospheres. When Whitaker, post-crash, is forced to confront his drinking problem, Washington conjures a bit of the dangerous, pursed-lip cockiness that earned him an Oscar for Training Day--but in Flight it's tempered by age: Denzel is still Denzel, but Denzel is getting old. He's bloated, greying, and that gives him a vulnerability that works well here. He is a man perpetually fighting to maintain control, and perpetually in danger of losing it.

However, as written, Whitaker is the kind of alcoholic you only see in the movies: he swigs straight from the bottle as he listens to Bill Withers and watches old home movies; he falls face-first onto coffee tables in slapstick style; he mumbles and laughs and points his bottle accusingly. It lacks nuance, subtlety. It's completely anachronistic, and John Gatlin's screenplay abandons Washington completely in the final scenes, when it descends, with out-loud evangelizing about "what it means to be truly free" and "what kind of man I truly am," into a parody of Oscar-baiting Hollywood sentimentality.

And that, unfortunately, is where Zemeckis ends up. On familiar terrain. Whatever notions he might have had of saying something new, hinted at in those gritty early scenes, are abandoned completely. It's a safe landing, but not the right destination.



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