The ideal way to see a movie is when you can discuss it afterward with the people who made it. Putting aside some of the dire questions that you've heard during Q&A sessions at film festivals or public screenings, it's a remarkable experience to be able to get clarification, insights or humorous anecdotes from someone directly involved in the production process. Occasionally, though, this situation presents some problems — as when the person responsible for something you didn't like at all about a film is sitting right in front of you.
That was the case when Flight had its world premiere a few weeks ago at the 50th New York Film Festival. Do you ask the screenwriter, John Gatins, why he structured the story around a fascinating moral dilemma, only to retreat to the safety of formula recovery drama? Do you risk pissing off the entire rest of the room, including John Goodman? (Perhaps it's just the prevalence of Roseanne during my formative years, but nobody wants to piss off John Goodman.) The problem is that Gatins says he wrote Flight as "a morality play" — a form meant to instruct — which shortchanges the complexity of the situation he sets up. (At this point, if you plan to see the movie, you should probably stop reading.)
Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a functioning alcoholic who, despite being drunk and on cocaine, manages to crash-land a plane that is crippled by a manufacturing defect. Six people die in the crash, though subsequent simulation tests with equally qualified pilots result in complete loss of life. So the quandary the movie establishes is powerful and well-nigh unsolvable: Piloting a plane while drunk is wrong, and for anyone else that flight full of people would have died — but in this instance it made Whitaker the kind of person whose inebriated thinking-outside-the-black-box could save the flight. If the pilot weren't an addict, he would not have been able to save his passengers. Does that mean that he could only save them because he was an addict — and a liar, and an arrogant, alienated loner leaving a trail of personal destruction?
But Flight makes it impossible to view Whip's drunkenness neutrally as it angles into the well-traveled flight path of the recovery drama. As encouraging as it is to see director Robert Zemeckis return to live-action filmmaking, Flight shares with Zemeckis' recent motion-capture animations an absence of subtext, an on-the-nose obviousness that extends to the movie's music cues. Goodman (as Whitman's affable drug dealer) gets to make a grand entrance to "Sympathy for the Devil," but that song is so embroiled in the past four-and-a-half decades of popular culture and cinema history that you can't even experience it on its own in this context.
It's the marvelous cast that keeps wrenching Flight in unusual, compelling directions — including Goodman, a jolt of kinetic energy whenever he appears, and Don Cheadle as a coolly ruthless legal adviser. The most fascinating aspect of the film is how it fits into Denzel Washington's screen persona. Exactly what all can the screen Denzel do and still be likable? He won his Oscar for being a sociopathic cop, but that's sort of the exception that proves the rule. Here, he's a drunk and cokehead who makes his grand entrance passed out ass up on a bed while his lady friend, pubis bared, is trying to get her clothes in order. He saves lives but loses so much more, or at least that's what the narrative means us to think.
But Washington shows a furious commitment to the character's unappealing downward spiral. He uses his limitless resources of charm — something he deployed to disarming effect during his own NYFF appearance — as something very much like a junkie's duplicitous dodges. As long as this amazing actor and his tormented character are flying by the seat of their pants, not giving a damn whether we like them or not, Flight soars.