November 8, 2012

Melodrama at 30,000 Feet

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The trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ new film Flight is about perfect, so, naturally, it is a total lie. The two and a half minute spot promises sex, courtroom drama, a screen-filling John Goodman and an upside down 747 skimming just meters off the ground, all jacked to The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the omnipresent movie rock song, if there is any. Flight has all these moments, yes, but the spectacle is a Trojan horse for an unabashed, male-centered melodrama.

“Melodrama” is considered a pejorative term today, which is fair. It has become secondhand for “manipulative” and “exaggerated,” adjectives that can describe even the classics from the genre’s heyday in the 1950s. Hawkeyed critics like Dave Kehr praise them for their subtle contradictions in mise-en-scene (props, scenery, lighting). Take Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life: As a neglected black mother dies in her bed, a dated photo of her shamed, light-skinned daughter leans on her night table, beaming into space. Sirk is in on the joke, and hopes you are, too. The best melodramas are both sappy and ironic — it just takes effort to notice the latter’s undertones in the midst of all the crying, shouting, etc.

So, in 2012, we have Flight. Save for its digital cinematography and black leading man, this film could have been made over half a century ago. You can say it has and point to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Both study the physical, mental and familial consequences of alcoholism and do so with a heavy hand. Your enjoyment (or at least appreciation) of the film balances on whether or not you recognize that hand and its duplicity. Put simply, Flight veers into histrionics here and there, like when airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) stumbles around his lake house with an inordinate number of empty vodka and beer bottles strewn about. Our gut may force a laugh, but are we deriding the performance or the emasculating effects of substance abuse? Oh, the drama of melodrama!

As tempting as all this social commentary may be, you may notice I am dancing around the fundamental question of a review: Is it good? Time for a diplomatic answer: It depends. The macho thriller promised by the trailer is sidelined for an effective domestic drama. Married adults with families will connect; teenagers and unchained college students, not so much. Flight features a masterful opening crash sequence, where pilot Whip saves nearly all of the passengers aboard his flight. There is an ostensible realism to the crash — the erratic descent takes agonizingly long and handheld cameras zoom in on panicked passengers and dolly backwards through the aisle. Memorable though this sequence may be, the rest of the film stays grounded. A fridge stocked with liquor replaces a plummeting fuselage as our object of fear.

Given that he drank liters of liquor not only the night before but during the fateful flight itself, Whip has a nagging feeling that he may be a bit responsible. His only scars are a cut over the eye and a limp leg, while his religious co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) will likely never walk again. Silently repentant, Whip retreats to his family’s lake house and dumps all of his booze into the sink. Even in a brisk montage, it takes a couple of minutes to dispose it all. With the stress of investigations, guilt of lives lost and long-standing family issues flaring up, Whip retreats back to the bottle, his tonic and poison.

While Flight may not always be subtle, Denzel channels the flabby screenplay with remarkable control. Whip lies to everyone, including himself, without pause, and it’s in his eyes where his subconscious betrays him. His gaze lingers too long, with glints of the unacknowledged struggle raging inside. Denzel works on another level here, slipping into his character’s mental state to the degree that I think our CIA should pull a Team America and recruit him as a spy. Expect to see his name on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.

Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood (sporting a Sully Sullenberger stache) flank Whip as a criminal lawyer and airline union rep, respectively. Cheadle either rolls his eyes at a passive aggressive simmer or lets loose at a raging boil, making for an unusually predictable performance. Greenwood’s character is all about staying cool, which he does until he can no longer tolerate the self-destructive actions of his old friend, Whip. A jolly John Goodman also joins the cast as Harling Mays, Whip’s drug dealer and body man. The film steps into a moral quandary when, as Whip lies on the bathroom floor blacked out from boozing the night before, Harling saves the day by administering him a few lines of coke. The scene is played for laughs and, for all the hidden meanings in melodramas, I see no acquitting explanation here.

The female characters in Flight, as Julia Moser ’15 vented on The Sun’s video review online, are static and borderline exploitative. The opening minutes cut from the critical plane crash to the misadventures of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict. She visits a porno set to score some merchandise from her dealer, who pressures her to “act” with him. She does not (*spoiler*), but it’s an unnecessary set piece in which to introduce the female lead. As it turns out, Nicole isn’t even a lead, or at least not provided any insightful lines or actions. Her lengthy introduction ruptures the suspense of the opening, and for no thematic benefit.

With just Denzel under the spotlight, Flight builds to a satisfying close, despite how predictable it may be. Denzel and Zemeckis endow Flight with all its memorable qualities — they manipulate the typical melodramatic tropes to contemplate sin, mortality and redemption. John Gatins’ screenplay does not seem to bother with women, and the two hour, 20 minute runtime will prove painful for those expecting another plane crash. Why anyone would hope to see another plane crash beats me; the title’s a metaphor, get over it.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos