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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear