Flight starring Denzel Washington

New York Film Festival Features Flight, Passion, and The Paperboy

Flight starring Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington in Flight | Paramount Pictures

When I heard about Flight, the new film by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) starring Denzel Washington (American Gangster), I was concerned that it would be another one of those “noble hero saves the day after a wild ride in the air” pictures. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington at the New York Film Festival press conference for Flight | Melanie Votaw Photo

Flight is one of the most dimensional movies to ever come out of a studio (Paramount, in this case). The plane crash is peripheral to the real story — a man’s struggle with alcoholism — and Denzel Washington provides a moving and complex portrayal. His character, Whip, is hardly a good guy, but Washington brings just enough humanity to the role that you root for him.

Screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) must be commended for keeping us guessing as to what the characters will do. I certainly never knew whether Whip would triumph or self-destruct.

Gatins started the script in 1999 and spent years researching plane crashes. He also used some of his own personal experience in conveying the reality of addiction. The script is not your average addict story.

At the press conference following the screening, Gatins was asked about the genesis of his script. “It was kind of born out of what I like to call my two greatest fears,” he said, “which are drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash.” Then, he added, “It’s a story of recovery as much as it’s about the value of the truth.”

John Gatins, Bruce Greenwood, and Denzel Washington at the Flight press conference | Melanie Votaw Photo

Gatins spoke to a lot of pilots for research. When he asked them if they knew anyone in their industry with a substance abuse problem, they would inevitably pause, sigh, and say, “Yeah, I knew a guy.”

For Zemeckis, the complexity of the script was the biggest draw. “What attracted me to the piece was all the moral ambiguity of every single character and almost every single scene and the entire piece,” he said.

Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis at the press conference for Flight | Melanie Votaw Photo

Washington arrived a little late for the press conference. We were told he wasn’t feeling well. He does seem to be a man of few words. When asked how he managed to shake off the character physically and emotionally, he simply said, “I haven’t.” His toughest scene in the movie? “Right now,” he quipped.

While Washington didn’t become a pilot to prepare for the role, he got to “play” at it. “We had the opportunity to go into flight simulators,” he said. “That was great. I just have a good job. One day, I’m flying. Then, I’m driving a train. For me, it’s just fun. It was amazing.”

John Goodman (The Artist) provides the comic relief in the movie as Whip’s friend and “not so moral” support. He enters the film as the Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil” plays on the soundtrack. I don’t know if this was on purpose, but in the 1998 film, Fallen (a fun supernatural thriller that I recommend), Goodman and Washington play police partners. That song is the final one in that soundtrack.

John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Don Cheadle
John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Don Cheadle talk about their roles in Flight | Melanie Votaw Photos

Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays a lawyer trying to keep Whip out of trouble, and Bruce Greenwood (Super 8) is a friend of Whip’s who is also a representative of the pilots’ union. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) plays an NTSB investigator. British actress Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) plays her first American character, complete with a Georgia accent.

The crash scene is indeed harrowing, so some may shy away from the film because of it. As Zemeckis joked, it isn’t something you’re likely to see on a plane. Flight runs long — nearly 2-1/2 hours — but you won’t feel it. Zemeckis has created a solid, tight narrative that kept me engaged from beginning to end.

Passion, unfortunately, was an entirely different experience in the theater than Flight. I’m willing to concede that perhaps I just didn’t get it, but from what I’ve read, I’m hardly alone.

Based on the French film, Love Crime, Passion is sort of a Kabuki-esque remake with stilted dialogue and over-the-top performances that had many in the theater laughing at moments that I don’t believe were meant to be funny.

Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in Passion | Integral Film/SBS Productions

It’s disheartening since director Brian De Palma (Scarface) has been so celebrated in his career, and I hated to see one of my favorite actresses — Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) — misused. It’s up to the director to help the actors calibrate their performances, and there was no calibration here. I don’t know if there were more tempered takes available to the editor, but if there were, they were discarded in favor of the laughably over-dramatic takes.

I hate to cut down anyone’s creative endeavor (which is why you see few negative articles with my name on them), but this movie was hard to sit through. De Palma was scheduled to attend a press conference after the screening but couldn’t make it at the last minute. I turned to the person next to me and said, “This is one time I really needed the press conference.” He laughed and nodded in agreement. My recommendation? Stream Love Crime on Netflix instead.

Lee Daniels (Precious) directed and co-wrote The Paperboy, starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and John Cusack. A sleazy film with no sympathetic characters, it inexplicably received a standing ovation at the festival in Cannes.

The Paperboy
Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in The Paperboy | Benaroya Pictures

Kidman said at the press conference that she felt it was important not to judge her character. “I see very few people as crazy…. For me, playing it, it’s a woman who’s obviously very damaged and is terrified of intimacy, of being close to someone…. Her destiny, she feels, is that kind of life that she has with the [John] Cusack character because that’s kind of where she’s heading. It’s almost like a death wish in a way, and for me, that’s tragic. It’s very sad, and that’s where I came from with her. And so, I have a lot of compassion for her,” she said.

Kidman and Cusack didn’t relate to each other on set as anything but their characters. “At the very end of the film,” Kidman said, “he came to my trailer and said, ‘Hi, I’m John.’”

Sadly, Daniels had to deal with racism while shooting the film in the deep south. Some people refused to speak to him, so he had to send his Caucasian assistant director to talk to them.

The New York Film Festival honored Kidman with a much-deserved tribute for her body of work. Certainly, her turn in The Paperboy is brave, but the movie isn’t going to be accepted by wide audiences.

As always, I didn’t get to see nearly as many films at the festival as I would have liked. It’s always jam-packed with many interesting studio, indie, and foreign movies.

My favorites, though, were definitely two of the festival’s highlight films — Flight and Life of Pi. (Read what I wrote about Life of Pi.) I consider both of these films to be must-sees, and you won’t have to wait for long. Flight lands in theaters on November 2, and Life of Pi opens on November 21, 2012.


9 responses to “New York Film Festival Features Flight, Passion, and The Paperboy”

  1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    I’m so jealous you got to see Zemeckis and the Flight cast in person. Did you get that “in the presence of greatness” feeling? 
    I must admit I was skeptical about Flight being featured at NYFF, because it seemed like such a commercial movie. But after reading your notes and other reviews I’m onboard with it now. Can’t wait to see it.
    Do you feel like it’s one of those movies that will work well in both commercial theaters and arthouse theaters?

    1. melanievotaw Avatar

      @Jane Boursaw Well, it’s a big commercial film, so I don’t see it as an arthouse film (although they apparently shot it for less than the average studio film and in just 45 days or so). At the same time, it isn’t formulaic for the most part (the ending may be a little formulaic). I think it will be liked by those who like arthouse films, though. They may not like every aspect of it, but they’ll like most of it. There have been a few reviews out of yesterday morning’s screening that are negative, but they’re outnumbered by the positive ones. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
      As for feeling like I was in the presence of greatness, what was cool about everyone there was that they all appeared so human and humble. I couldn’t detect any big egos on the stage.

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