Monday, May 30, 2011


Genre: Drama
Premise: An alcoholic pilot becomes a reluctant hero when he saves a crippled plane from certain catastrophe.
About: If this is based on anything (a novel?), I wasn’t able to find out what. Which means we have the rare exception to the rule that is a drama spec sale. The writer, Gatins, has jumped back and forth between small roles in films and being a feature writer. He wrote the Dakota Fanning film, Dreamer, as well as Coach Carter and Keanu Reeves’ Hardball. Robert Zemeckis is said to be interested in directing. And Denzel Washington is currently attached to star.
Writer: John Gatins
Details: 134 pages - undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Robert Zemeckis used to be my favorite director. What I loved about him was that he always put the story first. And the bigger he got, the more effects-driven his movies became, it was fascinating to watch him stick to that philosophy. I still remember going through the Forrest Gump DVD extras and realizing just how many special effects were invisible.

So when Zemeckis gave up live-action movies to become this 3-D motion capture pioneer, I was left not only confused, but baffled that he was no longer embracing the principals he’d built his career on. This motion capture stuff seemed to be ONLY about the special effects, with the story being an afterthought. It’s no coincidence that every one of those movies was absent of any soul. What’d happened to the Robert Zemeckis that I loved?

Well, I’ll say this. I have no idea what it’s like to direct a dozen movies in Hollywood. But I’d imagine that, as hard as this is for someone like you or I to believe, you probably get bored after awhile and look for new challenges. Pioneering a new technology then, would be alluring. Still, I’ve been impatiently waiting for Zemeckis to return to the live-action well, and finally it’s starting to look like that will happen, with Flight being one of his first steps back.

40-something Whip Whitaker is waking up from a long night of drinking and fucking. In order to kickstart the old ticker and put an end to his post-wasted sluggishness, he snorts up a few lines of cocaine. Nice! Breakfast of Champions baby.

It is to our horror, then, that we realize Whip is piloting a commercial airliner that morning. His co-pilot, a ball of nervous energy to begin with, is staring at Whip suspiciously. He wants to believe that he doesn’t smell booze. But man does he smell booze. Does he say something? Does he do something? If he’s wrong, his career could be over before it begins.

Despite Whip’s questionable shape, he seems amazingly calm during a rough take-off. And later in the flight, after a huge BANG and a collapse of the plane’s hydraulics which results in the plane flipping upside-down, it’s the co-pilot who freaks out and Whip who’s as calm as a cucumber. I won’t ruin what happens next, but let’s just say that, if executed well, it will be one of the more harrowing scenes ever put on film. In the end, Whip crash-lands the plane, saving all of the passengers except a few. It is seen as the single most amazing maneuver in commercial piloting history.

Whip’s injuries put him in the hospital where he misses the majority of the media coverage and it is there that he meets Nicole, a 30 year old drug addict who’s resorted to giving hand-jobs during massages to secure money for her next high. She overdoses on heroin which is what led her here. Her and Whip then form an unlikely friendship, that slowly turns into something more.

What Whip doesn’t know is that when he was unconscious, they took blood and skin samples from him, and know he was drunk and high during the flight. This becomes the central focus of the story – an inside look at the politics of a crash investigation, as each of the parties (the union, pilots, airlines, plane manufacturers) all fight against one another for who’s to blame so that THEY aren’t responsible for footing the bill. It’s the uniquest of unique situations. There’s no doubt that Whip saved all of these people. Yet he still might get tabbed as the cause of the crash.

There are so many ideas in Flight, and the structure of the story is so unpredictable, I’m not sure how to break it down. I guess that ultimately it didn’t work for me, and the reason is, that for all the interesting stuff going on with the crash and post-crash politics, this is really just a hard-core look at alcoholism (and addiction in general). It’s kind of like Leaving Las Vegas in that sense. A good movie, but not something you pop in after a long week for entertainment.

I’ll give Gatins credit though. He went against the grain a lot, and made choices you didn’t expect him to make. For example, the hero aspect of the story is never explored. Whip is a hero, yet is never seen by the media, never recognized by the public.

My question is, is that realistic? I think every person in America knew exactly who Captain Sulley was after he landed that plane in the Hudson (granted, he was kind of a funky looking dude). My issue with Whip never experiencing his celebrity firsthand, was that it made the event seem less significant. We’re told this was the greatest commercial airplane maneuver in history, yet if we’re going by what Whip experiences in the aftermath, it’s like it never happened.

It actually had me wondering why Gatlins didn’t go in the opposite direction. Why not have it so Whip becomes this huge celebrity with all these opportunities stemming from his heroics? He’s hugging babies, he’s the spokesperson for the airlines. For the first time, he’s got real control over his life. And THEN the union comes to him and tells him about his toxicology report.

The reason I think this works better is because now Whip actually has something to lose. He has this perfect life that hangs in the balance of these reports getting out. This would in turn make the backroom politicking more interesting. They have a national hero on their hands who’s changing the industry for the better. Do they really want to lose that? In other words, the stakes would be higher on both ends.

This led to the biggest bout of turbulence during Flight: Whip Whitaker doesn’t really give a shit about his goal – keeping his job. Protagonists not caring about their goals is a huge problem, because if they don’t care, we the audience don’t care. Look at some of Zemeckis’ other films. Marty McFly is desperately trying to get back to the future. Tom Hanks is desperately trying to get off that island. Jodie Foster is desperately trying to make contact with aliens. Whip Whitaker is barely interested in keeping his job as a pilot. And this lack of interest just kills any significant stakes in the story. I will say this all day long. If there’s nothing to lose for your hero, you don’t have a movie.

Despite all this, I didn’t dislike Flight. I thought it was an interesting script with some great moments (the crash landing sequence was truly awesome) and should be an awesome role for Denzel. But in the end, it’s a huge downer, and because of that, not the kind of reading experience I’d recommend.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think there are two kinds of passive characters. The worst kind is the one without a goal. Without a goal, your hero will be directionless, and the movie will be directionless as well. The second kind of passive character, which isn’t as bad but still not good, is the character who DOESN’T CARE ABOUT HIS GOAL. So Whip Whitaker has a goal here – to save his career. But he just doesn’t seem that interested in it. We get the sense the whole way through that if he fails, then he fails. He doesn’t really lose anything. This lowers the stakes and makes us less interested in his journey.