The Films of 2012: Flight

With Flight, a welcome return back to the realm of live-action after a decade spent experimenting with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis reminds us of the pleasures of a well-made Hollywood drama.  Judged by the standards of the international art film, Flight begins to looks downright provincial, with its cornball ending and its old-fashioned moralizing zeal.  But that is also part of its undeniable appeal.  It’s a handsome and involving moral-problem picture, the kind of thing they don’t make much anymore; even Zemeckis seemed to have given them up.  There’s something comforting, even luxurious, about sinking into this kind of film.  Its pleasures are not intellectual.  They are the pleasures of watching a good story unfold with unerring straightforwardness, anchored by the charismatic presence of a Star (and because he’s Denzel Washington, this Star can really act, too). 

At bottom, Flight delivers the pleasures of realism, the mode in which classical Hollywood specialized for over thirty years.  Since the ’80s, which saw the rise of the blockbuster and American independent cinema, both of which effectively changed our notions of how mainstream films should look and feel, realism has become gauche and unpopular.  I’m not always one to stick up for this kind of thing either, but it’s strangely relieving to see a film that is so unfettered by stylistic quirks, so free of slick editing or lame twists, driven by believable, well-rounded characters.  Even recent throwbacks to this kind of classicism, like The Help or My Week with Marilyn, feel tarted-up and gimmicky and a little breathless by comparison, as if they’re straining to emulate the conventions of an earlier cinematic era but don’t really understand them.  Flight feels genuinely timeless, as if (with a few minor adjustments) it could have been made in 1951 with Kirk Douglas in the Denzel Washington role.  And like the films of classical Hollywood, it feels functional and effortlessly put together. 

The story is simple but affecting.  Whip Whitaker is an ace pilot who, when his plane goes down, makes a heroic landing and saves nearly every passenger on board.  Then it comes out that he’s an alcoholic (he’s also accustomed to using cocaine to counteract his morning hangovers) and that he was drunk on the morning of the crash.  As played in a dynamite performance by Washington, Whip is as devilishly charming as he is loathsome in his refusal to take responsibility for his actions; the script basically makes him play out the same scenes we’ve seen dozens of times before in movies about addicts from The Lost Weekend to Days of Wine and Roses (the “I’m going clean” montage; the relapse; the argument with the concerned loved one; the breakdown; etc.), but he’s powerful enough as an actor, and big enough in his charisma, that he makes them into what may be the best performance he’s ever given.  Like the film itself, it’s done in a style that we’re no longer much used to seeing these days—and that we may not be completely sure how to take. 

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