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Movie Review: Flight

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After a 12-year hiatus from the land of live-action, Robert Zemeckis returns. Is it a triumphant return? At least for the first 15 minutes or so. In the opening scenes of Flight it seems as if Zemeckis is doing everything he can to make us forget his last two real movies were What Lies Beneath and Castaway. I’d be much happier if I could forget he ever descended into the uncanny valley with Polar Express, Beowulf, or A Christmas Carol. Here, nudity, alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana all show up in just the first scene. Next we get put through the wringer in what is definitely one of the most terrifying scenes of turmoil once the plane goes into its dive. Unfortunately, as successful an attempt as the first few opening scenes may be, the remaining two hours of clashing melodrama and black comedy completely ruins everything.

Flight is extremely loosely based on the 2000 fatal flight of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The plane wound up crashing into the ocean in a dive after the pilot’s attempted to fly the plane inverted (upside down). The National Transportation Safety Board determined that inadequate maintenance led to excessive wear and catastrophic failure of a critical flight-control system during flight. The also stated probable cause was “a loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines’ insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.”

Screenwriter John Gatins uses the plane inversion to bring us Flight’s character study of the fictional Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who manages to overcome the dive even if it still results in a crash. Only instead of crashing into the ocean and everyone dying, Whip manages to crash his flight into a field only to lose four passengers and two crew members. What happens after this is an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. What they find is that Whip had a system full of cocaine and alcohol. Since the flight was intended to be only about an hour they did not offer drink service in-flight but two empty bottles of vodka were found in the garbage. Hugh Lang is brought in by the airline to cover up Whip’s toxicology report and get the blame where it belongs, which is the plane’s malfunction. A subplot involving a drug addict rears its head for absolutely no reason as we get put through the motions of a film that tries to make you feel sorry for a man who takes no responsibility for his actions.

The malfunction of the plane was not his fault, but do his heroics make up for his drug and alcohol dependency? Gatins sure wants to try to make you believe that. John Goodman shows up in full “The Dude” mode and Melissa Leo makes a last-minute guest appearance as a prosecutor when Whip is finally forced to take the stand. Whatever movie Goodman walks in from would be a far greater film than this and I would love to see it. Even if Goodman is just playing a coked-up version of “The Dude,” and is probably ad-libbing every line of dialogue. This is when Zemeckis and Washington kick up their game. In the meantime, Flight is stuck with a plodding script which comes as no surprise when Gatins resume consists of Real Steel, Dreamer, Coach Carter, Hardball, and Summer Catch. Now that I mention those damning charges, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, I close my case.

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival and a member of the Utah Film Critics Association.
  • I have to heartily agree with your take on this Oscar-baiting piece of tripe. I am seriously beside myself that so many critics are bowled over by this thing. I made a lot of similar points in my own review.

  • Igor

    There are some tricks to flying inverted, and to transitioning in and out of inverted flight. I’ve never flown a full-scale airplane, but have flown many model airplanes, inverted as necessary. It’s a kick! Aside from control reversal you have a radical change in pitch control because things are not symmetrical. Also, banking.

    Back in the 1955, Tex Johnston famously barrel-rolled the 707 prototype in Seattle in front of a customer viewing stand(!!) and got chewed out for it. There’s a video at youtube: Tex rolls the big 707.

    Tex explains that the forces are all 1 G in the barrel-roll, but that is only true because he starts a little high and exits a little low (and that ‘little’ is carefully calibrated from Tex’s vast experience!). Of course, you can enter inverted from a half inside loop (or, more exciting, a half outside loop).

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    Loved the link! Yes, people need to be careful…but there is a place for testosterone in the world!

  • Igor

    Tex Johnston brought a LOT more than testosterone to his mission! You may have heard the saying “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots”. Tex brought his knowledge of physics and math and his practical experience from his history of flying, starting when he was 11.

    Details make the difference. Tex was pulling peoples leg when he said “all the forces in a barrel roll are 1G, so it’s easy”. Sit down and figure out the forces throughout the roll and you’ll see why. Also, it’s a 3D problem so you have pitch and yaw!

    As I recall that prototype had float-bowls, which makes figuring the Sweet Spots verrry interesting.

    Not every modern pilot gets to fly bomber missions over Europe with 3 of 4 engines dead and the rudder shot away, as rehearsal for becoming a commercial pilot. Yet, 20 year old kids recruited from all over America did it and many of them even returned (although about 70% died).

    Instead of Nazi cannonfire and flak to test tyro pilots we have Flight Simulators and we have academic and experiential training. All that stuff is financed and regulated by the government. You wouldn’t be able to fly coast-to-coast today if it wasn’t for government regulations and government financed facilities, like modern airports.

    If Airline development had been left to “free markets” dominated by monopolies we’d still be waiting for efficient inexpensive air flights while reading the daily newspapers for news of the latest Ford Trimotor crash and how it sets back cross-country flight.

    ALL modern pilots get extensive training in flight simulators, which the commercial world considered too expensive when pilots first proposed them. They are costly, and the training protocols are demanding, but without them we wouldn’t have the worldwide airline system.