Flight is Denzel Washington's show

Every addict has to hit bottom before they can get better.

Flight (15)
dir: Robert Zemeckis

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you aboard this non-stop review of Flight, a film that won’t be coming soon to any in-seat entertainment systems near you. It’s the latest movie from Robert Zemeckis, the Spielberg protégé who made audiences whoop and cheer with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before being acclaimed for his dopiest work (Forrest Gump), then getting waylaid by motion-capture animation (you know: cadaverous-looking cartoons such as The Polar Express).

Flight is Zemeckis’s first live-action film since Cast Away 13 years ago. Remember that? Terrifying plane crash, exotic desert island, one of American cinema’s great actors bonding with a volleyball. Well, Flight is similar, except for the desert island and the volleyball. It’s another platform for an outstanding performer. And Denzel Washington, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, possesses the nonchalance that can only come when an actor asks himself: “But where would I even keep a third Oscar?”

Washington is your captain for today, the seasoned pilot “Whip” Whittaker. Whip is cruising at an altitude of several thousand feet before he even enters the cockpit, due to the liberal quantities of cocaine snorted during a hedonistic night with his colleague Katerina (Nadine Velazquez). Katerina is one of your flight attendants and will shortly be passing through the cabin with a dazed expression on her face.

Ten minutes later, we will all be wearing that look following a spell of turbulence in which the elements treat the plane in the manner of a petulant child demolishing its rattle. Whip toasts his success in reaching calmer skies by decanting vodka miniatures into an orange juice bottle. But his celebration is premature. A malfunction at 30,000 feet wakes him rudely from his boozy slumber and demands the sort of crash landing that tends not to be covered in pre-flight safety announcements. Please make sure your disbelief is securely suspended at this time.

There are emergency exits located around the auditorium but using these during this sequence of mortifying excitement is to be discouraged. This stuff, after all, is what Zemeckis does best: it’s as if he set himself the challenge of traumatising all over again those cinemagoers who had recently returned to flying after seeing the air crash in Cast Away. However, passengers are advised to adopt the brace position after landing in order to absorb the impact of a gripping film turning abruptly into a moribund one. It’s not only the plane that hits the ground.

Please ensure at this time that all memories of Hollywood films about redemption are stored neatly at the back of your mind to prevent them coming loose and obstructing your viewing experience. I appreciate this may be difficult. Whip’s life is such a plane crash, even before he is involved in a plane crash, that there’s no way Flight isn’t going to soften into a journey of moral improvement culminating in a chastening public confession. Every addict has to hit bottom before they can get better: Whip just happens to take several hundred airline passengers with him when he does so. It’s worth noting, though, that his addiction plays no part in the accident –his handling of the disintegrating aircraft is expert. But this is the nearest Flight gets to ambiguity. From here, it’s only a matter of time before a flinty thriller becomes a slick issue-of-the-week TV movie, complete with exhortations to God and a comforting coda.

At the end of Flight, it would be appreciated if you could dispose of any rubbish in the receptacles provided – if in doubt, just follow the example of the film, which divests itself unsentimentally of any characters for which it has no further use. There’s the junkie (Kelly Reilly) whose story intersects briefly with Whip’s. Or the wily lawyer (Don Cheadle) sniffing out legal loopholes. Or Whip’s drug-dealing hippie pal, a sub-Dr Gonzo character so poorly written that it seems somehow right that John Goodman should give the most witless performance of his career in the part.

Flight is Washington’s show: his performance is emotionally muscular and admirably bereft of vanity. Zemeckis emerges with less distinction. I wouldn’t say he should take time to locate his nearest exit from filmmaking but he might keep in mind that his best work may be behind him.

Denzel Washington in "Flight".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser