December 11, 2012 – 4:33 am

Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2012) surprisingly manages to lift its wheels off the ground and soar as often as it does scrape the ground, furrowing the tarmac, says Critic After Dark Noel Vera.

Judging from the previews I was ready for the worst: a drugs-and-alcohol parable of the most inspirational sort, ending with AA meetings and hugs all around. But Robert Zemeckis’ directing [of Flight] has grown only more impressive with each succeeding film (though this progress is harder to see in his brightly-lit, somewhat zombified digital animation features), the same time his sentiments remain stubbornly square, conservative even (in Forrest Gump the hero’s sweetheart has to be punished for her liberal, sexually promiscuous lifestyle with childhood molestation, abusive boyfriends and, ultimately, AIDs).

What the trailers don’t prepare you for is how funny the film is. With a series of elaborately staged long shots Zemeckis throws us into the frenetic world of ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Denzel Washington): fueled by drugs, smoothed out by alcohol, basically surviving on an uneasy balance between several illegal substances, plus a sleep-deprived, sex-induced high. He takes the wheel of a passenger jet, dozes fitfully while the plane flies on autopilot, is jerked into sobriety by the plane’s shuddering, sudden dive.

The rest of the film is Whip trying to survive the resulting crash. Not physically - if anything he’s responsible for the insane stunt that saves nearly all the passengers and crew - but legally, socially, and spiritually; in effect, trying to take authoritative control of his tailspinning life the way he took control of the plane.

The suspense doesn’t arise from the oncoming crash, or even its consequences (an investigation into the crash, plus a blood test showing alcohol levels several times above the legal limit), but from Whip’s jawdroppingly persistent ability to deny anything’s the matter, and just how far this attitude will take him through the surrounding mayhem.

That’s the movie, basically; for Whip the crash never really ended; he’s still flying upside-down, desperately trying to keep his messed-up head in the air. And he’s good; what convinced me that he was the perfect man for pulling off that rescue was the way he’d coolly, nervily pull off everything else - a series of near-misses, quick dodges, outright lies.

Best effect of all is the impression that he’s a practiced hand at this, that he’s been doing this all his life and this was business as usual (when he visits his estranged wife and son you can tell from their set and hostile faces how familiar they are with Whip’s usual business; they’re practically the only characters unmoved by his fast-talking charm).

If he ever gets into real trouble it’s towards the end, when circumstances have straitened enough that he has less maneuvering room and he’s turning into a more earnest wannabe reformer, reduced to staring at a liquor mini-bottle. That little scene might have been a bit too explicit, a bit too earnest if it wasn’t for the elaborate, extended spiral that preceded it.

I mentioned flaws; the music is horrifyingly obvious (”Sympathy for the Devil” with the entrance of a dealer, among other groan-inducers), plus at every step you sense the squareness of Zemeckis’ sensibility (this is after all a redemption film). Balanced this against the largely excellent cast, standouts including James Badge Dale’s gem of a cameo as a patient whose cancer seems to have only sharpened his sense of humor, and a terrific John Goodman as the aforementioned dealer (”Don’t touch the fucking merch!”).

As Whip, Washington is terrific; he’s that rarity in movies nowadays, the charismatic leading man with an effortless ability to keep an audience’s sympathy through the worse circumstances. More, if he doesn’t try go through such circumstances - if he tries for straightforward hero and not something more curmudgeonly, more outright hostile - he comes off as flat, even dull. He needs contrast to push against, give his performance definition.

It’s Washington’s show but really Zemeckis’ film. The filmmaker gets the tone right from the very start, when Whip wakes up in a boozy, post-coital haze and clears his head with a few lines of coke. Yes, we do keep track of Whip’s quest to keep his head pickled, we do spot the bottle raised surreptitiously to the level of his lips, but it’s how he raises it that sells the shot - at the carefully calculated moment when no one (except the camera) is looking, managed with such casual elan that if you (or the camera) didn’t know better you’d never notice.

You might call Zemeckis Whip’s enabler, giving us the calibrated angles and views Whip is constantly considering, the choices Whip is continually presented; the camera catches Whip’s brows furrowing - he’s making the necessary calculations - and he executes accordingly, flawlessly, sliding it all past the goalie with no one the wiser.

A terrific collaboration really, and I can’t say who deserves more of the credit; if Washington embodies Whip, Zemeckis with his sneakily simple angles, dollying shots and frenetic pace (frenetic not in the fashionable sense, with shaky-cam and ADHD editing, but the more classical (and more difficult) sense, through accelerating narrative momentum, accumulation of incident and detail), Zemeckis with his mastery of the film medium realizes a vivid world around Whip that slides past him faster and faster, till what looks like reality experienced at a run has turned into a slide down a slope has turned into a plummet down a precipice.

Whip isn’t sure just at what point it’ll slip out of his control, or if he’s in control at all, but he’s all too aware that that point is close, and refuses to even acknowledge it - think of a man riding a rollercoaster backwards, a mix of fear and pleasure on his face.

A word of the difference between Zemeckis and his oft collaborator and kindred filmmaker, Steven Spielberg: both come up with inventive mis-en-scene, both follow modern man’s largely adolescent sensibility as it flounders and flails in an increasingly hostile modern world.

Spielberg has only recently attempted to fight this aura of wholesomeness - problem is, the very seriousness with which he struggles works against him; Zemeckis seems to have arrived at his gravitas after a long and often hilarious odyssey (from Used Cars, the Back To The Future movies, and Death Becomes Her to Forrest Gump, Contact and A Christmas Carol).

With Flight Zemeckis seems to have struck a balance between his cynical and sentimental self, and it has at least with this picture improved his work - simply put, I’d take this movie over anything Spielberg’s done recently.

Note: You can also email Noel Vera at [email protected]

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