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1 review, 10 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Boozing On A Jet Plane"
5 stars

Although there have been any number of frustrating developments in the world of American cinema over the last decade or so, few of them, at least to my eyes, have been as vexing and disappointing as the career trajectory of Robert Zemeckis over that time. Deploying an approach that deftly combined the anarchic humor of Frank Tashlin, the technical virtuosity of Steven Spielberg (who produced his first two feature films, the lovely Beatles-era comedy "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and the scathingly hilarious "Used Cars," and directing the script that he co-wrote with one-time partner Bob Gale for the cult favorite "1941") and a genuine curiosity and fascination for American popular culture that went beyond just slapping a few period tunes on the soundtrack, he went on to make a string of commercially and critically successful hits ("Romancing the Stone, the "Back to the Future" trilogy and the still awe-inspiring "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") that led many to deem him the true successor to his former mentor and which culminated with the award-winning smash "Forrest Gump." At this point in his career, Zemeckis could essentially do whatever he wanted but with nothing left to prove, he soon began to flail artistically with a series of largely useless endeavors that saw him setting up technical challenges for himself to overcome, regardless of whether such concerns were of interest to anyone else but him, and left one-time supporters of his work wondering what in the hell he was doing. "Contact," based on the Carl Sagan novel about making contact with other worlds for the first time, was a technically impeccable and sober-minded drama that was quite good except for its overly self-serious tone and a final reel so sappy and sap-headed that the only good thing about it was that it inspired a particularly hilarious rebuke on an episode of South Park" back in the day. Still, it dealt with universal concerns involving man and his place in the universe in a thoughtful manner and even with its flaws, it was a valuable enterprise indeed.

"Cast Away," on the other hand, seemed poised to deal with those same questions from an intriguing new perspective at first but after a while, it felt as though Zemeckis, an avowed fan of old-time showmen like Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle, was more interested in the gimmick of stopping production part-way through the shooting to allow star Tom Hanks to go on a crash diet to suggest the ravages of being stuck on a desert before restarting production than in telling a story that would use that gimmick in a smart way. More troubling, in what was becoming a disturbing trend, he once again blew what could have been a perfect ending, this time by tagging on a painfully unnecessary third act. "What Lies Beneath," the thriller he did during the "Cast Away" hiatus had a wonderful opening 45 minutes of clever misdirection that eventually derailed into something so inconsequential that Zemeckis cheerfully revealed many of the key plot points in the trailers. From there, he spent the next decade dabbling in the world of motion-capture animation with results ranging from the preternaturally creepy "The Polar Express," the admittedly entertaining "Beowulf" and one of the weakest renditions of "A Christmas Carol" ever presented. With the release of that last title, followed soon after the monumental critical and commercial disaster of his production of "Mars Needs Moms," Zemeckis was clearly at an artistic crossroads and if was to have any hope of returning to his glory days, something had to change quickly and decisively. With "Flight," his latest film and his first non-animation effort in a dozen years, he has done just that and the result is both one of the more exciting and provocative American films of the year and a triumphant return to form for Zemeckis, easily the best and most consistent thing that he has done since "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Denzel Washington stars as airline pilot Whip Whittaker and if the notion of flying doesn't already terrify you to the very depths of your soul, watching him merely going through what appears to be his regular morning ritual could well keep you on the ground forever all by itself. After rousing himself from an all-night binge of sex, drugs and booze with a comely stewardess (Nadine Velasquez) with some cocaine, he somehow manages to pull himself together enough to punch his plane through a terrifying thunderstorm during the takeoff, much to the undisguised terror of his new co-pilot (Brian Geraghty). With everything seemingly stabilized, Whip fortifies his bottle of orange juice with a couple of shots of whisky before literally dozing off behind the wheel while leaving the flying to the autopilot during the short jaunt from Orlando to Atlanta. Everything seems to be normal, at least Whip's version of normal, until he is jolted awake by a mechanical malfunction that sends the plane into a steep and seemingly irreversible nosedive. Thanks to his consummate piloting skills, Whip pulls off an astonishing move (one sadly revealed in the trailers) that stabilizes the plane long enough for him to essentially glide it to a somewhat controlled landing in a field that miraculously limits the body count to only six people.

Because he was able to save the day and bring the plane down with only a relatively minimal loss of life, Whip is regarded as a national hero--especially once a cell-phone video of the crash goes viral--but he alone knows just how close of a call he had and secretly resolves to clean up once and for all after he gets out of the hospital--he dumps all of his booze down the drain, he refuses the offers from his amiable drug dealer (John Goodman) and even embarks on a tentative friendship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), another recovering addict that he meets while both are recuperating in the hospital. For about a week, things go swimmingly until he meets with the pilot's union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and his assigned lawyer (Don Cheadle) who inform him that the mandatory blood test taken at the scene showed that he was flying with a blood alcohol level of .24, a criminal act in itself and enough to make him the fall guy for the accident. Trip insists that his alcohol intake had nothing to do with the accident but what he fails to understand is that it makes no difference--by having something that blame can easily be affixed to, others can shrug off their own culpability and besides, he was drunk and stoned regardless of his subsequent heroics. While various parties get to work behind the scenes in anticipation of a full-fledged government inquiry, Whip goes off the rails again but without the aura of invincibility he previously possessed, he is no longer able to hold it together as he once did and finds himself in the rarefied position of being an alcoholic for whom crashing a plane carrying 106 people is not evidence of him hitting rock-bottom.

The commercials for "Flight" make it look like a white-knuckle thriller with Denzel Washington heroically trying to get to the bottom of a vast conspiracy but one of the great pleasures of the film is that the screenplay by John Gatins never follows the expected path. Under normal circumstances, for example, Whip might be presented as a flawed man who straightened himself out after a close call and tried to atone for his mistakes by uncovering the truth about what really happened to the plane. Instead, he is portrayed as a slick, overly self-confident jerk who has gotten way with incredible amounts of bad behavior due to his charm and ability to mask his demons in ways that eventually make him seem like a genuine monster--a sympathetic one, once his slick veneer is stripped away, but a monster nevertheless. As a result, the film forces audiences to grapple with an intriguing question--if a person is exceptionally gifted in some rarefied manner, does that excuse all of their misdeeds and if not, where is the line. Throughout the film, people are so in awe of what Whip was able to accomplish on the plane, despite their full knowledge of his condition that day, that they are willing to bend over backwards for him and he, despite getting chance after chance, constantly acts in an increasingly self-destructive manner. It all leads up to a fascinating climactic scene in which everything hinges on what Whip will say at a key point and I was startled to realize that even though the story had been building slowly and inexorably towards this moment, it had done so without resorting to the usual melodramatic beats that I was even then unsure as to where it might go from that point.

This is all the more surprising because Zemeckis is a filmmaker whose recent work has suggested that he has been more interested in challenging himself with elaborate technological hurdles than in challenging viewers with stories that offered them any complexities to mull over as they were watching them. From a technical standpoint, the film is impressive and the depiction of the plane crash at its center is as terrifying as any ever before put on the screen but in a weird way, that is almost the easiest element that Zemeckis is dealing with here. Far trickier is the notion of telling a story almost entirely through the eyes of a soused and self-absorbed jerk who defiantly rejects every attempt, either by his fellow characters or by the story itself, to make him a better or at least more conventionally likable person. This is easily the closest that Zemeckis has ever come to making a film that was a full-on character piece and he handles the challenge so deftly that even his more fervent supporters may be a little surprised at just how good of a job he has done here. Considering that the film runs well over two hours and does not exactly contain the most straightforward of narratives (certainly not the kind suggested by the ads), the fact that it is as gripping as it is serves as a testament to his incredible gifts as a filmmaker, a skill-set that has not been put to the best use in the last decade or so.

Aiding immeasurably to the success of "Flight" is a performance from Denzel Washington that, for my money, is as good, if not better, than anything else that he has ever done before--yes, I would easily rank it higher than his award-winning turns in "Glory" and "Training Day" and maybe even his work in "Malcolm X." Washington is easily one of the most charismatic and self-confident actors working today but there have been times when that self-confidence has crossed over into a sort of cockiness that can become grating and and off-putting after a while. Here, he takes that approach and turns it in on himself to offer an indelible portrait of how that kind of aura of untouchable cool can be used to mask deep insecurities and how even just the hint that it is merely a facade can send such a person on a downward spiral as destructive, at least emotionally, as any plane crash. This is a performance as great and brave and original as any to emerge this year and while award prognostication is in no way my business, it is impossible to imagine the upcoming Oscar season without him as one of the key front-runners. Washington is also surrounded by a collection of strong performances from his supporting cast--Kelly Reilly is strong yet achingly vulnerable as Whip's companion into the uncharted field of sobriety, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are both excellent as people who want to help Whip but still have their own agendas to pursue and while John Goodman only appears in a couple of scenes, he makes such an impression that when he makes his final appearance, no matter how troubling it may be from a dramatic standpoint, he makes such an impact that many viewers may find themselves cheering when he appears.

"Flight" has a couple of minor problems that should be noted. During the opening sequence depicting Whip's pre-flight routine and the crash, Zemeckis intersperses these scenes with moments showing Nicole's movements on that fateful moment and since we have no idea who she is or what connection she has to the proceedings, her interactions with a friendly drug dealer on a porn shoot and her lecherous landlord are distractions that probably should have been dropped--it would have been just as effective to introduce her in the scene in the hospital stairwell where she meets Whip for the first time. There are also times during the midpoint where things begin to sag just a bit and where a little more tightening might have helped out. Those problems aside, "Flight" is pretty much a must-see that reinstates Robert Zemeckis, at least for the time being, as one of the most inventive American directors alone (yes, this almost single-handedly makes up for that "Polar Express" monstrosity) and serves as yet another reminder that Denzel Washington is one of our best actors. Oh yeah, if you are one of those wise people who finds the notion of air travel to be a tad unsettling under the best of conditions, be warned that this film is the kind of high-grade nightmare fuel that could keep you grounded permanently.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23795&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/01/12 12:27:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2012 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 48th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 48th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/10/14 Simon Vintage Denzel, & Zemeckis w/some occasional profound brushstrokes; BUT a little disjointed 4 stars
2/24/13 action movie fan good first half hour but slows down and wallows in self pity 2 stars
2/13/13 Lucy Crosland Not what I expected -- about alcoholism, not occasional imbibing. 3 stars
1/09/13 mr.mike Outstanding on all accounts. 5 stars
12/08/12 Heather Purplethorne Has Denzel Washington found a fountain of youth? He plays 30-something and looks it. 4 stars
12/03/12 Man Out Six Bucks Bird comes down to earth much faster than her capitan 4 stars
11/11/12 Butt Washington is very good; screenwriting & direction formulaic 3 stars
11/08/12 Abigail Everyone should see this! 5 stars
11/03/12 Jeff Wilder Washington's above and beyond. A few flaws. But great overall. 4 stars
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  02-Nov-2012 (R)
  DVD: 05-Feb-2013


  DVD: 05-Feb-2013

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