Flight is a good, well-crafted movie for about 85% of its 139 minute running time. But the other 15% is a great example of how quickly things can go wrong in a film, and how colossal the gap between film fans young and old can be.
As I was watching the first half of Flight, I kept thinking about how slick the movie was, and how much I enjoyed its seemingly odd structure. This is a movie that has one really great, visceral action sequence, and it is placed right at the beginning of the movie. We don’t get a lot of build up to our action, only fallout, and everything that occurs after the plane crash examines what being in the shoes of unfortunately named pilot Whip Whitaker would feel like. The writing of some of these aspects is interesting (when Whitaker first wakes up in the hospital), and some are too weird to be (when he visits a fellow crew member who awakes from a coma), but the movie as a whole never feels anything less than cohesive, and never stops being an impressive piece of filmmaking… Which probably shouldn’t be surprising to anybody.
Director Robert Zemeckis has never made a movie I’ve loved, but he’s also never made a movie I found unimpressive. I might not like Contact, nor Cast Away, nor Forrest Gump all that much, but I can’t say it’s because they’re poorly made films. I assume I liked the process of watching those movies for the most part, but at some point they all strayed into territory that made me angry; Jodie Foster goes to space, Tom Hanks delivers that stupid FedEx package, and oh my goodness the bursting crutches and that fucking white feather. Flight has similarly frustrating issues: the second most interesting aspect of the film is the way it looks at Whitaker’s alcoholism, but sometimes it does so in such an egregiously sappy, old-fashioned way that it seemingly completely forgets to even briefly examine the single most interesting question the film asks.
Whitaker has an alcohol and substance abuse problem; when we meet him in an Orlando hotel room, it appears he’s barely slept off the alcohol he consumed with Ruxin’s wife the night before, and he’s ingesting cocaine by the time Flight hits the five-minute mark. Whitaker pours a triple vodka into his in-flight orange juice, and takes a quick nap before the plane begins to crash. Throughout the movie, however, we are repeatedly told that the way Whitaker ends up landing the plane in a manner that loses only six out of 102 lives is basically impossible, and that (the incredibly unsober) Whitaker was the only pilot who could have pulled this off. Without his skills, 102 lives would have been lost. Which – of course – begs the question: if an inebriated pilot saves 96 lives (that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved), is that enough to forgive them for getting behind the controls in the first place?
This question is interesting and worth debating, but the film decides to work around it in the most old-fashioned way possible; we’re told the landing was simply an act of God. In this film, God unequivocally exists, and seemingly every character is a believer in some way. And this, in a microcosm, is what the film does wrong, but it’s also kind of what it does right: for everything this movie does poorly in an old-fashioned manner (ignoring an interesting question by saying “God did it,” a zoom in on a single tear, etc.), it does something well in a similarly old school fashion (Flight doesn’t worry about putting the action toward the end, and thoroughly examines one person’s feelings on the crash aftermath). And the latter is good enough to forgive the former, for the most part. Flight is so enjoyable in some ways that it’s easy to forgive the parts that are sometimes painful to sit through. And Flight is even more enjoyable if you’re conscious of the fact that films like it are almost entirely gone.
Flight is a movie made by a baby boomer director; Zemeckis was born in 1951, and his storytelling sensibilities are proof of that. People born in 1951 tend to be okay with single tears and freeze frame endings, because they grew up in a time where that wasn’t off-putting, a time where it was more acceptable to simply assume your audience believes in God. Similarly, they’re okay with a slower-paced film that takes its time between Point A and Point B, again because they grew up with media products like that. But we’re at a point where these directors are going to start dying, or whose output will get significantly worse as they age even further away from the modern filmmaking environment. Steven Spielberg’s days of making really interesting movies are long gone; he’s still a master craftsman, but the ideas don’t resonate as much with the modern filmgoer, and many of the tricks feel tired (if only because of how influential Spielberg has been). Judging by Zemeckis’ spotty post-2000 output, his quality filmmaking days are numbered too. And that kind of sucks, because – despite its problems - I still like movies like Flight. I’m willing to forgive some egregious filmmaking errors if they’re done well enough. I’m even strangely okay with a Boeing-sized metaphor (the plane isn’t the only thing in a nosedive, guys) if that metaphor is expertly employed.
Watching Flight in a theatre full of people significantly older than me, I felt bad that audiences are going to be less and less into films like it as time passes. Flight is worth watching, warts and all. In the future, I hope there are still films like it, but films that have been amended to have slightly more filmmaking and storytelling modernity than just the computer generated plane crash. But even if new, younger directors wanted to make similar movies, they likely won’t be able to get these types of movies green-lit, if only because they don’t have the name and box office resume Zemeckis has, something that is needed to get a risky proposition like Flight made in 2012.
They still make them like they used to, but probably not for long.