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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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