By DEVDUTT NAWALKAR
Alcoholism, real life, home-destroying alcoholism, has afflicted people across the globe since the advent of civilization and will continue to do so till it is on its haunches (and who’s to say it won’t be absolute monarch then?). Often, the disease has legitimate origins, causing the individual to spiral down into a vicious circle while staring into the bottom of a bottle. Just as often, alcoholism begins, like it has for so many I’ve known, as a way of having fun while they’re young, gestating until life forces issues of more serious import upon them. Then it becomes either an escape from confrontation or a means of wallowing further in one’s sense of helplessness. Heightened anxiety and emotional sensitivity, paranoia, seeing and feeling things that aren’t there to be seen or felt, ruined relationships – quite the gamut of fuckups. Rob Zemeckis (Castaway, Forrest Gump, and numerous other feel good movies) provides a surprisingly stark picture of the addiction in Flight.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic in denial. His affliction has resulted in a divorce and an estranged son. What complicates matters somewhat is that Whitaker also happens to be a commercial airline pilot. I’ve never been one with an overt fear of flying, in spite of the absurdness of being inside a physical construct with no solid ground underneath, but Flight forces one to wonder just how many pilots within the industry are in an inebriated state while flying. It is a busy job, a stressful job with short turnovers and large amounts of time away from family and friends. These men and women with their plastic smiles and platitudes have to have an extremely stolid bent of mind; I can think of precious few circumstances when a group of people are in a more vulnerable state than when they’re flying aboard an aircraft. To cope with that sort of burden, day in and day out, is immense.
Whitaker has his way of coping. Copious amounts of alcohol, cannabis, and a few lines of cocaine, and he’s raring to go. On just such a flight, things go horribly wrong when an equipment malfunction causes the plane to nosedive into free fall. Whitaker has sufficient nous to manoeuvre the craft in outrageous ways and manages a forced landing in the middle of a field. Out of the 102 passengers aboard, only 6 perish; later investigations reveal that pilots subjected to similar conditions in simulation universally failed to salvage anything from the crash. Time and again, Whitaker claims that he is the only pilot who could’ve done what he did to land that plane. It does throw up an interesting question: did his heightened state of mind under the influence of coke and alcohol have anything to do with his confident and incredibly inventive handling or did it hinder his ability to think rationally and make decisions that could’ve saved those 6 lives?
That’s the main premise of the story. The parts I found really interesting are the ones where Washington depicts his alcoholism in the aftermath of the crash, warts and all. The constant lies, absolving himself of all responsibility and accountability; when shame becomes a word from the distant past and the only thing that matters is the next drink. It isn’t pretty. There are a couple of scenes, especially, which hit close to home. Perhaps too close for comfort, but that is precisely the point of all good art. To cut beneath the skin and scrape the bone. Washington is a great actor and he does the part full justice. It’s not hamming, it’s a nuanced act, balanced superbly; the lines he’s given and the way he’s performed them would strike a nerve with anybody who’s had a passing acquaintance with booze.
Zemeckis keeps a dark mood for the most part but he tries to lighten things up with Whitaker’s dealer character for which there really wasn’t any need. But I guess a lack of comic relief in a film like this is a recipe for mainstream suicide. Also, the recovering heroin addict girl that Whitaker takes in is fairly superfluous and doesn’t really flesh out Whitaker beyond showing that there is inherent good in the man.
Flight is a good movie, if an uncomfortable one. Depending on where you come from, it’ll either be a footnote in the list of movies you’ve watched this year or it will make you think a bit more about yourself or the ones you know, as the case may be.
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