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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.