Flight (2012)

Three Acts of Denial

Very rarely have I encountered a film that begins with such little promise, yet ends with a flourish of transcendent beauty. And yet, Flight (2012) is such a piece. At first, Robert Zemeckis’ new film seems built out of as simplistic an ethical system as can be imagined. Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) goes to visit a heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) he met while in the hospital recovering from the crash of the commercial jet plane he was flying. When he arrives, Nicole’s ne’er-do-well landlord is haranguing her for back rent. The scene emerges directly from the most banal caricature of the 19th century theatrical melodrama on which the Hollywood cinema is built (the triumvirate of hero, heroine, villain). Hundreds of plays featured such a scene between landlord, damsel in distress, and hero:

Landlord: “You must pay the rent.”
Heroine: “I cannot pay the rent.”
Hero: “I’ll pay the rent.”

 I nearly burst out laughing when Whip throws the sleazy landlord to the ground, hands him $400 and drives Nicole away to safety.

The good vs. evil simplicity of Flight continues throughout the film. The first shot features an early morning flight taking off in front of a hotel’s neon sign: “American Values Suite.” This is indeed an apt description of the film: it will restore traditional American values–via family and God–via the symphonic virtuosity of Hollywood filmmaking.

However, the film turns shortly thereafter. Its visual achievement involves, of all things, an adaptation of The Last Supper. Before this, the ubiquitous Christian iconography within the film is so heavy-handed as to be laughable: when Whip saves the plane by landing it in a field, he clips the steeple off of a church. Once on the ground, the first responders are the church’s congregants, in white robes having been performing baptisms in the lake. They quickly convert from redemptive water workers, to angels pulling wounded crash victims out of a fiery plane.

However, The Last Supper references work on a subtler level. After living with Whip for a few days, the recovering Nicole leaves the pilot because he is an unrepentant alcoholic, quite literally drinking himself to death. As Whip wakes up the morning of her flight from him, he reads a goodbye note she has left. Behind Whip on the wall, screen left, is a framed pencil sketch of “The Last Supper.” The film’s climax pays off on this planted image with a colossal wallop.

At the NTSB hearing, Whip testifies that he did not drink the three days before the flight, an outright lie. After praising Whip’s piloting virtuosity (his cessation of the plane’s vertical dive by inverting it saved 96 lives, a feat which could not be replicated by any of the hundred NTSB simulations), the lead investigator, Ellen Block (Melissa Leo) feigns a remote control error so that she can stand at the projector in front of Whip. She walks around and down from a raised dais on which is seated a horizontal row of fellow NTSB adjudicators.

A brilliant tactician, Block waits for the last moments of her interrogation to ask about two empty vodka bottles the investigators found at the crash site, unexplained since the rough air during the flight prohibited beverage service. The investigators know that one of the airline crew must have drunk them during the flight. We know that it was Whip, but one other possibility is Whip’s lover and drinking partner, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), who died in the crash because she was out of her seat helping a little boy get strapped back into his after falling out of it when the plane inverted.

In a stunning exchange of dialogue, Block asks Whip three times if his opinion is that Katarina drank the vodka during the flight. By this moment, the film has subtly but forcefully converted Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” into moving images. Whip looks at Block in front of the horizontal row of investigators and is asked to denounce Katarina three times. The film positions Whip as its Peter, asked three times to deny knowledge of Jesus. After the third question, Whip pauses and mumbles, “God help me,” knowing that his lie to keep himself out of jail is going to tarnish the memory of the true hero of the flight, a woman whom he loves, Katerina. Like Peter before him, Whip begins to cry, and replicates the apostle’s repentance, one of the central moments in the New Testament: “It is my opinion that Katarina did not drink the vodka… because I drank the vodka. On the three nights before the flight, I was drunk. I am drunk right now, Miss Block, because I am an alcoholic.”

The admission fulfills the film’s simplistic Christian moral system. Relying on the individualistic ideology of the “Twelve Step Program” of Alcoholics Anonymous, the film positions this as a victory for Whip over his dependence on alcohol and drugs. Afterwards, Whip goes to prison, but leads his fellow inmates in an AA meeting, a process he formerly repudiated when Nicole took him to one of her meetings.

In this, Whip’s heroism stands alone with Nicole and his fellow recovering addicts. In the scene leading up to the hearing, we see the full corruption of the materialists who surround Whip: Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), his union representative, and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), his slick Chicago lawyer pay for the hilarious Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s drug dealer, to come give the stumble-down drunk cocaine so that he may recover enough to testify, replicating exactly the alcohol followed by cocaine regimen that Whip followed the morning before stepping onto the plane. Charlie and Hugh have no qualms about paying $500 for cocaine to accomplish their goals: saving the pilots’ union and winning the legal case.

And yet, “The Last Supper” re-enactment is so sublime, it salvages the film’s simplicity despite itself. The film’s conservative ideological position makes it so different from the other great film adaptation of “The Last Supper,” an anti-Catholic parody that ends Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961). In that modernist art film, rebellious peasants take over their landlord’s villa while he’s away, eating, drinking, dancing and otherwise carousing. At one moment in the proceedings, a woman raises her skirts to take a “picture” with her vagina: what it sees is the composition of Da Vinci’s painting, with the apostles and Christ replaced by a proletariat in revolution.

Flight does not espouse any of the anti-Christian, anti-bourgeois values of Bunuel’s filmmaking. And yet, Zemeckis’ film’s evocation of “The Last Supper” is every bit as visually compelling. It is a testament to the fact that all great cinema, no matter what its ideological position, is capable of moving us with deeply resonant cultural images.

– Walter Metz