Review: Flight

Denzel Washington in Flight.

Most of Flight is slow-paced character development, but it contains a few scenes that make your heart thump. In one of them, Denzel Washington’s character, Captain Whip Whitaker, tries to pull his passenger jet out of a nosedive while the passengers scream in terror. In another, the same character, an alcoholic, discovers a mini-fridge full of liquor bottles in a hotel room and struggles with the temptation to break the week of sobriety he has achieved so painstakingly.

Both scenes made me lean forward in my seat, but I found the second more agonizing than the first. Although more than a hundred lives would have been lost if the plane had crashed, Whitaker’s soul was at stake while he stared at the glowing liquor bottles, and I felt invested in the condition of his soul.

It’s a credit to the talents of Washington and the director, Robert Zemeckis, that I cared so much about what choice the character would make. The movie they made together is rare in Hollywood these days – an intimate, realistic examination of a life.

Whitaker lands the malfunctioning plane with minimal loss of life by employing strange maneuvers that make his co-pilot scream in confusion, as well as terror. The scenes that precede and follow the flight explain how he could think clearly while the plane plummeted so fast that the altimeter was a blur. Before the flight, he snorts lines of coke, takes a puff of a joint and empties a few beers in his hotel room before strutting down the tarmac in his snazzy uniform. While addressing the passengers, he mixes a few mini-bottles of vodka with orange juice out of their view. It’s not that being drunk or high helped him control the plane. He’s just used to staying calm in the midst of horrible turbulence, thanks to his drug addictions. It’s a thrill for him.

After waking up in the hospital with a mild concussion, Whitaker decides to become clean. His drug dealer, played by John Goodman with his characteristic obscene energy, offers him various substances from his woven handbag, but he turns them down. He holes up at his family farm, where he collects liquor bottles from his hiding places and empties them down the sink. While he does this, we see clues that he comes from a proud line of pilots and that his addictions have shoved his wife and teenage son out of his life.

At first, Whitaker is a hero, but before long word gets out that blood tests taken at the hospital showed he was drunk and high, meaning he could be charged with manslaughter and spend the rest of his life in prison. Ironically, this revelation sends him back to the bottle.

Meanwhile, his union representative and a lawyer from the airline (Don Cheadle) ask him to play along in their strategy to obliterate the toxicology report and blame the empty mini-bottles found on the plane on a flight attendant who died in the crash. Whitaker has to make a decision: will he stop lying to himself and others about his alcoholism, or will he tell the truth and face the consequences?

Apart from the crash scene, most of the movie takes place in mundane settings such as a hospital, Whitaker’s ancestral farm and corporate meeting rooms, but Washington’s performance takes the movie to the extreme lows and highs of human experience – especially the lows. The movie is so devoted to the character of Whitaker that it wouldn’t work if the Washington didn’t manage to make him so realistic and nuanced, as well as hinting at an underlying decency that makes us root for him.

The ancestral farm that Whitaker exiles himself onto may be mundane, but Washington’s performance makes it powerful through the contrast of its pride and simplicity – the rotary phone, the black and white family photos on the walls, the old Cessna plane in the garage – with his decadent behavior.

Zemeckis also deserves credit for the quality of the movie. This is the first live action film he’s made since Cast Away, which was similar in the way it focused on one character developing in response to trial and isolation. Most of his direction is straightforward and concise, like a well-written novel that lets its fascinating characters keep the pages turning. A few times, though, he uses flourishes that become even more powerful in contrast to the conservative shots around them, such as a zoom and shake of the camera when Whitaker snorts a line of coke before the flight, or a long close-up of a mini-bottle of liquor that Whitaker might or might not take. The emphases these shots place show what Zemeckis thinks is important in the film: the moral choices Whitaker makes.

Flight‘s budget of $31 million was anemic by Hollywood standards. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Zemeckis and Washington took large pay cuts in order to make the film. They must have really believed in the project to make that sacrifice. Judging by what ended up on the screen, they were wise to have faith in the material, but their devotion itself is what pushed the film into the upper stratosphere of quality.

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The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

When Kasey and I are left alone and it gets dark, I want to smell the Leader.  I feel better when I smell the Leader, so I look for things that have the Leader’s smell.  Usually I have to go to a special place.  I push it open with my nose, then I use my teeth to grab on to something that has the Leader’s smell.  I pull as hard as I can, and it falls down.  Sometimes other things fall down, too.

Then I drag it over to my spot and lie down on it.  I smell the Leader’s smell, and I feel better.

When the Leader and the old boring guy come back, the old boring guy always gets mad when he sees what I have done.  I think he’s mad that I always want to smell the Leader’s smell, and not his smell.  Sorry, old boring guy!  I guess I just don’t like your smell.   Ha ha!

Thanks To Our Readers

I believe in the power of saying “thank you,” so I’d like to say “thank you” to our Webner House readers.

In October, our family blog received more than 10,000 views for only the fourth time, and we’ve also been receiving an increasing amount of thoughtful and interesting comments.  I’m also pleased that the Webner House blog is an enclave where Americans of good will can respectfully and freely express different political viewpoints without rancor or, I hope, hard feelings.  Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s election, I hope that we all can continue that tradition.  So much of the internet is thoughtless bile and invective; we certainly don’t need more of it.

The world is an interesting place, and in my view one of the things that makes it so is technology that lets ordinary people, in far-flung places, communicate and get to know each other.  Thank you again for coming to visit our snug little corner of the world and sharing your thoughts!

Gunning For 10 And 0

This afternoon Ohio State plays Illinois in Ohio Stadium.  Under new coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have bounced back from last year’s grim 6-7 record and now stand at 9-0 — surprising all but the most optimistic members of Buckeye Nation.

Like OSU, Illinois has a new head coach — former Toledo coach Tim Beckman — but the similarities end there.  The Illini season has been one of disappointment rather than accomplishment.  Illinois is 2-6, has lost every one of their four Big Ten games, and has experienced some embarrassing losses, like a 52-24 loss, at home, to Louisiana Tech and a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines.  Illinois’ offense has sputtered and broken down; the Fighting Illini are one of the worst teams in the BCS in passing and scoring offense and not much better at running the ball.  Their once-promising quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, remains a run-pass threat, but he hasn’t had much help.  Last week, against Indiana, he was sacked seven times.  Today, the Buckeyes also will try to put pressure on Scheelhaase and force him into bad decisions.

This is a game that Ohio State should win, but also one that the Buckeyes can’t afford to take for granted.  Ohio State hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, and in many games the Buckeyes experienced offensive or defensive breakdowns that kept the outcome in doubt until late the fourth quarter.  And those of us, myself included, who went to the Purdue game only two weeks ago remember what happened the last time a winless Big Ten team came to Ohio Stadium for a match-up that Buckeye fans thought would be an easy win.  As exciting as the Purdue finish was, I don’t want to see today’s game hanging in the balance as the clock ticks down.

Ohio State needs to execute on offense, score early and often against an Illinois defense that has given up a lot of points this season, take advantage of an Illinois offense that has struggled to score, and show a killer instinct in putting this game away as early as possible.  There will be time enough to reflect on the season so far next weekend, when Ohio State has a bye.