Zemeckis’ ‘Flight’ is no Thriller, just Lazy 12-step Evangelism
In Hollywood, is AA the new Scientology? Director Robert Zemeckis’ attempt at a “grown up” movie, Flight has the propagandistic tone and telos you’d expect from one of those Ayn Rand ‘Atlas’ movies, or some religious ministry B-movie that uses familiar genre devices to make the evangelistic medicine go down — except here we have Hollywood A-listers, a big-budget action set piece, and an unquestioned allegiance to the 12-step platitudes of Alcoholics Anonymous (the latter courtesy of writer John Gatins). Zemeckis seems to have climbed down the beanstalk from motion-capture land (The Polar Express) with total amnesia regarding how flesh-and-blood human beings actually behave. He applies a product-placement aesthetic to booze and drug use: It’s all staged and cheated for the camera.
‘Flight’’s story of an ace commercial jet pilot (Denzel Washington) who miraculously saves a plane full of people during a crash, but has yet to save himself by giving in to the cult-like orthodoxy of AA, is as pat and sanctimonious as any typical 19th century temperance novel. By the end, you’ll want to get bombed in pure defiance of the movie’s sermonizing.
‘Flight’ is the Abel to the Cain of P.T. Anderson’s ‘The Master.’ Both involve main characters wavering in their resistance to dogmatic (possibly brainwashing) belief systems; both movies fail (leaving aside the many mesmerizing elements of Anderson’s movie, not the least of which is Joaquin Phoenix’s inspired channeling of post-car crash Montgomery Clift) because they can’t or won’t try to fully comprehend the group dynamics behind the dogmas, or the beckoning prophet (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s guru) or dubious promise (AA’s famous “serenity”) that the troubled characters are so drawn to. ‘Flight’ submissively idealizes, while ‘The Master’ fashionably condescends; ‘Flight’ is a follower, ‘The Master’ believes in nothing. Both are afraid to explore further.
Unlike Anderson, however, Zemeckis doesn’t have a single fresh idea. The song cues in the film might have been selected by a computer from a spreadsheet of song “assets” taxonomized with keyword tags: Lou Reed is tagged with “heroin,” so ‘Sweet Jane’ plays while a junkie shoots up; the appearance of John Goodman’s cartoonish drug dealer —in slow-motion reverse dolly, no less— is triggered by none other than that that long-forgotten Rolling Stones bootleg rarity, ‘Sympathy For the Devil.’ This is what passes as a directorial choice from Robert Zemeckis.
Denzel Washington has given performances of great depth, nuance, and power, and certainly will again. As Captain Whip Whitaker, however, he tries too hard to hold the movie up, and his performance becomes blubbery and bloated.
Pointlessly drawing the movie out to 138 minutes, Zemeckis and Gatins are handed a luxurious running time that any industry director striving for originality would instead have to arduously fight for, frame by frame. In today’s risk-averse studio environment, what behind-the-scenes maneuverings could have made this possible? Is there a secret network of executives holding pitch meetings and making handshake deals in church basements across L.A.? Did the Alcoholics Anonymous’ organization, or some of its wealthier members, finance the movie, assuming some financial risk from Paramount? It’s hard to see how else such an obvious, unentertaining propaganda piece such as Flight would ever get made. When Captain Whip finally makes his big public confession, Zemeckis and Gatins spin it as the truth setting him free, but it could just as easily be interpreted as a terrifying act of conformity, a flawed individual’s final surrender to Groupthink.
Reviewed on October 10th at the 2012 New York Film Festival – Closing Film