Flight (IMMEDIATE REACTION: By the way, who was that kid playing the cigarette-smoking cancer patient on the stairwell? Let’s see…James Badge Dell. He’s really, really good in this. Wonder if he’s as good with hair as without?)
Gene Siskel told anyone who brought up the matter that he believed Roger Ebert, his longtime TV tag-team partner, to have been a better writer than he was. That he was right only underscores how he may, by only a few millimeters, have been the better critic. I wish there were a published collection of his reviews that buttresses that contention. All I have instead are memories of his off-the-cuff insight on the old At the Movies programs. For instance, I remember when Siskel tossed into the broadcast his suggestion that if any contemporary movie actor was best suited to play James Bond, it was Denzel Washington. This seemed at the time (late eighties, I’m guessing) such a daring leap of imagination that one wasn’t sure it was allowed to ooze through a TV set. But not that daring since, by the first Bush administration, Denzel Washington had proven that he was cool enough to carry a movie, even if it wasn’t necessarily his movie to carry. (See Glory or, for that matter, Philadelphia, which he pilfered, fair and square, from Tom Hanks.) And much as I love defending Pierce Brosnan from undue criticism because it makes some white people I know very angry, the Bond franchise couldn’t have done any better or worse in the intervening years by taking Gene up on his modest proposal.
If anything, playing Bond would have held Washington back. He never needed anybody’s franchise to establish his own lucrative brand because he can not only carry a movie, he can open one – which was, as recently as the nineties, historically unheard-of for an actor-of-color who wasn’t named Bruce Lee or Sidney Poitier. Early in Washington’s career, I remember a colleague claiming that if anything held him back from being a major star, it was his innate sweetness; a quality she believed drew audiences in while making them incredulous that he could ever be totally malicious or crazed. I knew what she meant. Washington could keep you off-balance, but he never entirely scared you, not even in his Oscar-winning role as a deeply bent cop in Training Day. But keeping you off-balance is good enough to keep you interested without putting you off – a perfect formula for drawing total strangers to the nearest multiplex for repeat visits. What people expected from a Denzel Washington movie was a really competent guy (with an edgy, somewhat remote exterior) capable of handling highly combustible circumstances, saving a bunch of people — and, often in the process, teaching hard lessons to younger (usually white) people.
The pre-release trailers for Flight led audiences to believe they were getting the same thing; Denzel at the controls of a mortally-wounded airliner, barking out orders, seeming to have it all together, waking up apparently surviving, saving lives and…and…well, what’s all this about finding excessive alcohol in his bloodstream? Hey, it’s not a Denzel Washington movie without rough edges, right? Those trailers made it seem as though Washington’s character was being unjustly accused of something and hinted that somehow he would find a way to clear his name.
You don’t see those trailers anymore. Flight’s cover has been fully blown. Washington’s Whip Whitaker may be as supremely proficient as many of his archetypical roles. But that alcohol in his blood is not exactly a red herring and he most assuredly does not have it all together. Put plainly, Whip’s a sick bastard, a functioning alcoholic with razor-sharp instincts for both handling heavy machinery and denying his disease. The same cues of cool audacity audiences expect from a Washington performance are positioned here to make his character smaller, even wormier, than usual.
Which sounds like a gi-normous risk for a movie star of Washington’s stature to take. But Washington isn’t just a big star, but a great actor. He punches up Whip’s fighter-jock arrogance with a knowing swagger that leaves the scenery bereft of bite marks. But he also lets you see, in still moments, the puffy, baffled ruins of a proud man’s self-esteem. Watch Whip’s eyes as he faces two of the surviving crew members, imploring them to help him stay out of jail. “I really need this,” he tells chief flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) and he looks as needy and vulnerable as any lost junkie grubbing dollars for a boost. (He’s scarcely less feral at such moments than Kelly Reilly’s waif-ish addict Nicole.) Oddly, that innate sweetness mentioned earlier as a detriment to his star power remains within the audience’s reach as a safety valve for its sympathy. Deep down (all right, really deep down), there’s a happy little boy that used to love his life and his calling before his drinking hit the nightmare stage.
You wish the rest of Flight were as conscientious and adventuresome as Washington. The reviewers are correct in proclaiming it the best film Robert Zemeckis has directed since Cast Away back in 2000. But the movies in between, 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowolf , were motion-capture experiments that never get past the point of being, at best, merely interesting And yes, that crash-landing makes for a damned harrowing set piece. But it’s not as though Zemeckis hasn’t made a plane crash before – even though in retrospect Cast Away’s disaster-at-sea emits the keep-hands-in-the-car-at-all-times aura of a sensory thrill ride. Flight’s central catastrophe, though its details are more scarily accessible to our nervous systems, has its own issues of razzle-dazzle to overcome – and, just maybe, some plausibility problems as well.
What bothers me most about the movie can be summed up with the depictions of the characters played by John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood. The latter’s portrayal of Whip’s old Navy buddy and union rep is fashioned with a quiet dignity and persuasive empathy while Goodman brings to Whip’s boyhood chum and dealer the leathery brio and seedy flamboyance of a Sons of Anarchy supporting player. They’re both fine at what they do, but just suppose the two characters had switched roles, but not temperaments? If Greenwood had been a quieter, more reasonable-seeming enabler of Whip’s self-destructive habits and Goodman a more antic, less circumspect defender of Whip’s civil liberties, the movie might have seemed less conspicuously a pure product of Hollywood and more like something that challenged expectations as decisively as Washington’s performance. (The minute Goodman, with dark-glasses and ponytail, sashays into view with “Sympathy for the Devil” pumping into his ear buds, you can barely keep yourself from yelling back, “We get it, OK? He’s fracking Satan! You don’t have to flash the semaphores and sirens!”)
This isn’t meant to denigrate anybody’s performances, least of all those of Goodman and Greenwood, both of whom I’m always delighted to see on the big screen. Everybody in the movie, in major and minor roles alike, is first-rate. It’s just that the movie’s overall vision can’t or won’t match Washington’s capacity to transfigure both his heroic aura and the addict-in-crisis subgenre Flight ultimately represents. Washington not only carries this movie. He is the movie. He’s the only reason you stumble out of the theater, blinking, groping and checking your own judgment for leakiness. It’s the crowning glory of everything he’s done thus far – and it’s too bad he wont get a third Academy Award for it, even though there was maybe a week after the movie’s release during which he was considered, more or less, a shoo-in. He’ll still get nominated (and after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?) But as much as I love Lincoln and its titular , titanic peformance, Denzel Washington would have had my vote if I still had one to give at the New York Film Critics Circle. Gene Siskel, I like to think, would have understood why.