Heaven Can Wait
Fans of the Spielberg spinoff, Robert Zemeckis, used to say that all would be right with the world and God would be in his heaven, when the director tempered his obsession with the role of the computer in the movie making process and returned to live action photography. It was certainly an irony that the man who married CGI and celluloid better than most, deftly handling non-intrusive visual effects that served his stories, suddenly had the equivalent experience of a careful dieter who has a blow out and empties the contents of their fridge into themselves: he jumped into fully animated movies informed by motion capture technology. In the decade since Cast Away (not to be confused with Oliver Reed’s naked island odyssey, Castaway), we’ve had the likes of Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol: unsatisfying cartoons populated by creepy, lifeless figurines.
Conscious that he may have fondled the twin globes of technocentrism and juvenilia for too long, Zemeckis has returned to the land of the living with Flight, a preternaturally affected morality tale for adults, told, somewhat ironically considering the lead character’s alcoholism, with the upmost sobriety. Zemeckis wishes to remind us that he’s a serious filmmaker and nothing marks a reluctance to be jocose like the casting of Denzel Washington; here deathly and dispiritingly sombre as a morose airline pilot with a suite of addictions who makes a decent fist of saving his passengers when his plane fails, only to then face questions about his conduct in the lead up to the crash.
What might have been an interesting character study and mystery for the audience, pivoting on the question of whether Washington was indeed culpable for the disaster he subsequently managed, is somewhat waylaid as Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins fixate on the theme of providence and the egregious inference that there can be no redemption without it.
God, as is his wont, is omnipresent in this drama from the beginning and one’s inclined to wish he’d retreat and leave us to contemplate Washington’s real world exigencies. From the moment Denzel clips a church with his plane, having briefly brushed the heavens high on cocaine and booze only to be literally cast down, the almighty is never far from view.
God is listed as a suspect in the crash, Denzel’s co-pilot, his legs crushed, lies under a crucifix and tells his sullen wingman, “there’s only one judge, sir” and later, in case we haven’t quite got the point, John Goodman, Denzel’s dealer, introduced with a glob of the devil’s music in the form of The Rolling Stones, gets his client sharp for the official hearing and instructs the man’s lawyer to “get him to the church on time”. “God help me” cries Denzel, as he contemplates his ruinous addiction but it might have been better if he’d helped us by instructing Zemeckis and Gatins not to be so heavy handed in the religious symbolism department. This is frippery, plane (sorry) and simple, marking the second time, following Contact, that philosophical gubbins has marred an otherwise solid Zemeckis movie.
If we’re inclined not to focus on God’s somewhat indiscriminate mercy (death for the airline hostess that dared to have a sexual appetite, a crippling for the co-pilot that turned up for work clean and sober) and ignore the movie’s absurd piety and crude moral compass, there’s some moments of high drama in a movie that, in keeping with Zemeckian practice since the mid-nineties, is about half an hour too long. Washington’s arc is confidently realised and well played and there’s good support from Kelly Reilly as the drug addict who briefly gives Denzel some feminine comfort.
Once more Zemeckis, the old effects pioneer, integrates them with restraint and subtlety into the narrative – Reilly’s dilated pupils being a neat example – but the story, conceived as a fable, is fatally weakened by that decision. If there’d been a harder emphasis on Denzel’s culpability for the crash and had certain details been held back, allowing the ensuing investigation to become our own, this could have been an engaging and meaty drama. As made, it never quite takes off.
I wonder why it is so difficult for people to accept that there are people who after having survived an almost certainly deadly accident feel that there is something higher bigger than us that directs our lives and makes us throw away our old selves…this omnipresent God has different ways of dealing with the co-pilot, Trina and Whip. Why is it so bad to make a good movie about this? It is about God in a way and in that it could not have been what this reviewer suggests it should have been. This should not make it a less movie. Forgive my possibly not so finegrained English, it’s my third language…
Hey Ed, why so serious? Redemption an the use of God in said redemption is a pretty common theme in literature, film and other arts of expression. Get over yourself and quit being a hater because someone violated your separation of church and sta… I mean, film.
You hid your contempt for God in this review about as we’ll as Zemeckis hid the uncanny valley in ‘The Polar Express’.
I have no contempt for God because he doesn’t exist, merely the idea and the way that the character is used as a mental shortcut to circumvent critical thinking. Redemption is indeed a common theme but it’s far more interesting when centred on people and their own conscience. When a story defers to a higher power and turns its characters into puppets, that makes me less interested in what happens to them. God as an agent of spiritual emanicipation is also a cliche; we’ve seen it and read it a million times. Time for something new and a little more sober, I’d have said.
Ah, but there is contempt as you just reinforced it with your reply. You should get used to the whole redemption/God thing because it is not going away. Redemption without God/moral authority (where does that come from anyway?) as a secular humanist would see it is is about as flavorful as a dried piece toast. Without any jam. No butter. Oh, and it is burnt too.
Get used to it? We’ve had nothing but it since time immemorial. I think we can afford to consider new ideas. Morality is a social construct. It comes from history…and fear. From a lot of fear. Perhaps if we did more things for ourselves; made decisions that were just in the best interests of our conscience and those around us, instead of in deference to the imagined wrath of a vengeful God, then we’d be better people as we wouldn’t be doing something from fear of judgement, rather because we saw the wisdom in doing so.
Throw out morality but listen to our conscience, I have a hard time distinguishing these two things. The 10 commandments speak to the morality of a culture but also to the conscience of the individual. Where does our conscience come from and how do we know it is right if there is no God, no authority or standard? Did it evolve to make us more complicated than animals in the wild? They seem to be doing just fine without one. The law is written on our hearts could be one reason (also could speak to why it has endured since time immemorial). And I think religion practiced well is life without fear, without judgement but rather because we feel the wisdom in doing so. Thank you for the intelligent engagement of your ideas here. I respect where you are coming from even if I do not agree. I am thankful to live in a culture we we can express our ideas and critically examine an art form that we clearly both love and enjoy.
Watched the flick twice and while I noticed more “religious symbolism” the second time around, I did not consider it the Bible-thumping proselytizing your review implies. In fact, it struck me as the opposite. The most mainstream and evangelical characters come off sounding like users (the attorney & union rep), buffoons (the co-pilot & his wife), or damaged people (the surviving flight attendant) desperately in need of solace in the face of the terrible. When the “hero” pilot confesses his alcoholism (he was as much a junkie as a drunk) in front of the politicians following his “God help me” line, I did not take his utterance as a plea to a personal savior in any way. It was simply a commonly accepted phrase indicating he had reached his stress limit. People use the word God in phrases everyday while not holding any belief in a deity. And other than some books in the prison cell shot, I did not find the pilot character professing or proselytizing any Judeo/Christian faith beyond the clear 12-step AA program. You want to see over-the-top, in your face religion in film, there are much worse movies than this.
Or it could just as easily meant literally what the phrase says, “God help me”. As we get further from the ideas of one truth as a culture we get nervous about discussing absolute truths. We should expect to find more ambiguous general religious statements made; watered down in order to please the most general audience. As a people it is getting harder to find any wide accepted truths anymore and this will create a more difficult time for larger movies to have a unified message, such as redemption. My opinion.
I think this film is a bit more masterful, complex and kind and than you give it credit for Ed. As with all the key characters, Trina has both flaws and virtues: in the opening scene she casually asks Whip “That your wife ?” indicating she’s comfortable with adultery, which is different to simply having a sexual appetite. She then puts a joint in Whip’s mouth knowing he has to fly in an hour and a half’s time. Her own job involves a degree of respopnsibility for passenger safety and yet she goes to work stoned. But Trina is also incredibly selfless and brave: having watched the demise of a colleage who left her her seat, Trina still – despite being obvioulsy terrified – sacrifices her own safety to strap a child back into his seat; something the child’s own parents don’t attempt. Like Whip, the effects of Trina’s goodness far out-weigh the consequences of her flaws.
Trina’s memory is treated kindly in the film: Margaret speaks of her beauty and laughter at her funeral and Whip twice steadfastly refuses to let anyone beleive she drank the vodka during the flight: once when Hugh and Charlie first mention the discovery of the bottles near the recovered wreckage of the plane, and again during the NSTB hearing.
Neither the crash nor the film in general mete out death, injury or indeed the illnesses of cancer and sustance addiction with any unrealistic, neat, coherent system of natural justice. Four innocent passengers die during the flight along with Trina and a sober flight attendant,while the least sympathetic figures in the story(Harling Mays, Nicole’s landlord and the horrid airline owner) don’t suffer at all. The most culpable – ie whoever it is that fails to replace the elevator jackscrew after it was reported faulty – doesn’t even feature. Whip’s prison sentence for the felony he commits involves more joy than suffering and his only enduring punishment seems to be the still painful loss of his wife. Flight just doesn’t seem to be that concerned with punishment.’There is only one judge, sir’ as Whip’s co-pilots says, and John Gatins, the screenwriter, seems to have practiced what his character preaches.
As to the references to religion.. Isn’t it Hugh, the lawyer, that tells Charlie to get Whip to the church on time, not Harling Mays ? I liked the symetry with Whips earlier promise to get Margaret to her prayer meeting on time.
I don’t think Whip is contemplating his ruinous addiction when he asks God to help him during the NSTB hearing. I think he is contemplating the alternative, how daunting it is to do the right thing. It is only with his new found faith that he can manage his second feat of astonishing courage: telling the truth and facing the consequences ie public shame and a life behind bars where he won’t have acess to the crutch of drink. Again there is a pleasing, elegant symetry: During the initial turbulence on take-off the panicking co-pilot cries “oh lord !” and Whip scoffs back “He won’t help you now..”
Yes, there is a lot of religious talk and imagery but whats wrong with that ? it is afterall a film about, amonst other things, God. Even if you aren’t interested in that theme, theres plenty of other inteligence, warmth and complex moral ambiguity in this film. Its a rare delight.
I also concur with this 100%. I have possibly taken things a wee bit further in my review on politicoid, if you fancy a read. I just can’t bear the overdone sermonizing…