Denzel Washington’s Flight is probably not about what you think it is
The marketing for Denzel Washington’s new film ‘Flight’ sets the expectation for a very different movie than what the story is actually about. Is it fair to audiences to pull that kind of switcheroo?
If you’ve seen the commercials and trailers for Denzel Washington’s new movie Flight, you probably think you’ve got a pretty good idea what it’s about. Denzel plays a badass pilot, who saves the day by flying a passenger aircraft in ways it was never intended to (spoiler: upside down). There is a question about whether or not he’s at fault, and because we learn that he’s a crazy bastard who’d roll a plane with 102 people on board, it’s not that much of a stretch to think he’s a bit out there.
I asked a fellow Clacker to describe what he thought the film was about having only seen the trailer and television spots. Michael’s response: “It’s about the skewering of a pilot who doesn’t deserve to be skewered.”
But you, see, all of that is not what Flight is about. Sure, the things that you see in the trailer happen, but the film’s marketing barely even hints at the real story. How much misdirection? One of the flick’s most central characters is nearly completely absent from any of the marketing.
It’s very clear in the first five minutes that the impression we all got from the marketing might not be entirely accurate. We also see how the film garnered it’s R-rating in that same time period. We find Washington’s Whip Whitaker in a hotel bedroom littered with liquor and beer bottles with a very attractive – and very naked – member of the flight crew finishing off a joint before Whitaker finishes off a line of coke … all two hours before his next flight is scheduled to take off. To my friend Michael’s point: there is never any doubt that Whitaker was in the wrong getting into that cockpit.
Also never in doubt was the idea that his actions when the plane failed were heroic, but again, that’s not what Flight is about. In actuality, the film is about addiction and the series of compounding lies that addicts tell to keep their problem private. In some ways, Flight is commercial for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous (Note: that’s not a slight on those two groups that do incredible work).
The central character you’ve never heard of is Nicole — played superbly by Kelly Reilly — a fellow addict Whitaker meets in the hospital after the crash. Her introduction feels almost like an interruption originally, because it doesn’t seem like part of the story we were trying to watch. Interspersed with Whitaker’s morning and the events leading up to the crash, we follow Nicole as she seeks out and finds a high that puts her into the hospital for her fated meeting. She’s a character that audiences will instantly root for, hoping that her journey will somehow inspire Whitaker along a similar course. But addicts in denial will always be addicts, and Nicole departs our story almost as suddenly as she is thrust into it. Despite seeming so important throughout the film, she plays little to no role in the resolution.
The one thing Nicole refused to be was his enabler; but Whitaker was surrounded by enough of those. From his lawyer (Don Cheadle) to his union rep / “old friend” (Bruce Greenwood) to his dealer (the always hilarious John Goodman), none of the people close to him hold him accountable. There’s a family he doesn’t really have anymore, but they play such a little role in the story – until it’s time to make a cruel unnecessary point – that they’re not really relevant.
Denzel Washington’s performance is solid, and I’m sure people who are personally closer to the challenges of addiction will have enjoyed the movie a great deal more than I have. I was looking for something else; not necessarily a different story, but a more complete one. When Whitaker is at the film’s climax, left to tell the final lie that will protect his name, the biggest influence on the outcome has little-to-nothing to do with the previous hour and a half of the flick. I wanted to like Flight, but 1.5 great performances isn’t enough to keep me interested in a slow, plodding story that doesn’t differentiate itself from every other movie about addiction that we’ve seen before.