Could Flight Have Soared Higher?
Welcome to the slippery slope. When playwright and author Tracy Letts received raves for his portrayal of George in the new Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, he was asked about a few critics who questioned specific moments of his performance. Said Letts (I’m paraphrasing):”They don’t know I thought about that like 100 times?” In other words, he made a choice. It might not have been the choice the reviewers wanted, but that doesn’t mean Letts never considered other choices before settling on the one that felt right to him.
Blake’s movie, Blank Check, received good reviews, but some astute critics wondered if the story might have been improved if there had been a scene better explaining the protagonist’s motivations. In fact, Blake and co-writer Colby Carr had written that exact scene, but Disney decided the movie worked better without it; it never made the final cut.
I (your blog editor) once accompanied veteran writer David P. Harmon to the set of his TV murder mystery, Murder on Flight 502, which he wrote for Aaron Spelling and ABC. Both Spelling and the network wanted the movie’s star, Robert Stack, for a pilot they were shooting soon. So when Stack asked to “fix” the script, they gave him carte blanche. In the end, Stack changed the murderer but not the murderer’s reasons to kill. The result? Los Angeles Times‘ esteemed tv critic, Cecil Smith, wrote: “Robert Stack does his best to save David Harmon’s wretched script.”
Indeed, there are many forces at work when a film is actually produced. And so we at Cat! Enterprises have been very careful not to point fingers when a story might not resonate quite the way we’d hoped it would. Which brings us to Flight, which Master Cat Ben Frahm broke down in this space last week. A bunch of us felt this wonderful movie didn’t quite deliver on its promise — and Tom Reed is about to explain why, hopefully in a positive spirit you’ll accept on a slope that might be a touch slippery.
Monday Morning Quarterbacking is easy. And irresistible. Whether it’s sports, politics, or movies, everyone does it. Everyone’s a critic. And 20-20 hindsight makes us all pros. What’s harder is making all the right decisions up front, and that’s as true for Super Bowl coaches and Presidential candidates as it is for film legends. When it comes to movies, the audience is the great equalizer. I’ve been a fan of Robert Zemeckis for as long as he’s been making films, and whenever he’s got a new one I dash to the Cineplex with the same excitement I had as a teenager. That was my frame of mind when I saw his latest film Flight on opening weekend. And though I liked it a lot, I was also, I regret to say, disappointed. And that always leads to Monday Morning Quarterbacking. I can’t help myself. Can you?
SPOILER ALERT – read no further if you haven’t seen the movie! But if you have, and you like to play coach, or in this case, filmmaker, then please join me in that great development meeting in the sky where we can pretend we have all the answers and get to make perfect movies after the fact.
First off let me just say Flight is an amazing movie on a lot of levels. That’s to be expected given the A-List talent involved. It’s also great to see an adult movie made for the mainstream that’s wholly original and not based on a comic book or a franchise (hey, don’t get me wrong, I loved The Avengers and even parts of Skyfall). But let’s get to the point – why was I disappointed? Why is my word-of-mouth review “Yeah, good, but it’s kinda two movies” and not “You gotta see this!”, which, believe me, I wanted to be able to say. Other folks have noted that it feels like two different movies, the crash movie and the addiction movie, and I think that’s a problem. I don’t mean to say multiple genres can’t coexist – the best movies are often genre hybrids – it’s just that they have to do so imperceptibly, organically, seamlessly so that no one leaves the theater thinking they’ve seen anything other than one fully integrated story. I fully acknowledge the film may work just fine for a lot of people and it’s also possible that the screenplay and the film will go on to earn Academy Award nominations and possibly Oscars. But I’m the armchair QB today, I’m calling the plays, and I say it feels like two movies and that’s a problem that’s got to be fixed. Besides, when the movie is this good and yet still falls short all the more seriously do I take my punditry.
So where do we begin? Let’s start with my subjective experience watching the movie. I was riveted by the opening, not quite sure what the parallel story of the girl (the Heroin Addict) would amount to but game to find out, and once the jet
was airborne I was enthralled, getting progressively more tense to the point where I was literally on the edge of my seat right up through the heroic landing. And though it kind of felt like I had seen a whole movie already (I kinda had), that was just the end of Act I! Then the second movie started, the addiction drama, and Denzel Washington playing ace pilot Whip Whitaker (as brilliant as he’s ever been) begins a relationship with the Heroin Addict girl, and I didn’t really love that but again, a couple decades of good will and total faith in RZ kept me intrigued.
But what became evident fairly quickly was that Denzel’s character kind of checks out of the movie around here. He’s not really doing much. Though he is clearly NOT DOING a whole lot – he’s NOT cooperating, he’s NOT admitting he has a drinking problem, he’s NOT stopping his drinking (well, he did at first, but that was kind of a red herring). He’s basically in avoidance mode. And one might say, well, that’s the point – he’s avoiding his problem the way he’s always done, the way addicts always do, and we’re experiencing an accurate psychological portrait of a high-functioning drunk enmeshed in denial of his massively self-destructive behavior. And I say yes, fine, I’m on board with that, I want psychological accuracy; I want believability; and I want to see the consequences of Whip wrestling with (or avoiding) his demons – but I also want to see him DO SOMETHING! Chase something! Fight for something! I want to see him proactive, working to achieve some kind of goal rather than simply hiding out, unable to face the press, and dithering with this girl.
Then what happens is the girl leaves him and he continues a slow slide towards the climax that’s very fortunately invigorated by a great sequence where he falls off the wagon after an enforced dry-out period, only to find rebirth (Transformation!) through John Goodman’s fabulously F&G-ish drug dealing buddy dude (this sequence is really terrific and basically kept me in the movie) but then we’re at the climax where he faces a foe he’s never met, and the audience has never met, and this confrontation is supposed to be climactic. The main problem is this wasn’t nearly as exciting or involving or dramatic as the crash that ended Act I, and so it failed to fulfill the vital storytelling dictum that the climax must deliver a story’s maximum tension and maximum emotional intensity and impact. Well, it just didn’t. As much as they tried. So says me from my super-comfy recliner on a Monday morn, and by the way, with no axe to grind because I’m always rooting for Zemeckis (and anyone else making a film) to knock my socks off. But how could a scene involving two people simply talking to each other compete with a crippled jet filled with a 100-plus people about to die? How can Act III possibly top Act I? Well, that’s the challenge. And the requirement.
As I left the theater I realized the movie, for me, had three basic problems: 1) it felt like two movies, the Act I movie more exciting than the second; 2) the protagonist does little to drive the middle of the movie; and 3) the climax is less intense than the Act I break. So I ask myself, and those joining me here on the couch today, or the development table, or in the writer’s room – I ask you, is it a good idea to try and address these issues? Like I said, it’s my meeting so I say yes. And doing it well could be the difference between people merely liking the movie on the one hand or having their socks knocked off by it on the other. So let’s give it a try.
Let’s start with Denzel’s character, Whip Whitaker, basically the greatest pilot alive. We watch him accomplish something that looks impossible, and later hear knowledgeable people say how no other pilot could have done it. He epitomizes The Right Stuff. When it comes to flying he’s not just a hero, he’s a Superhero. Let’s take a moment to revisit Blake’s definition of the Superhero genre: 1) the hero must have a special power, even if it’s just a mission to be great or do good; 2) the hero must be opposed by a nemesis of equal or greater force, who is the “self-made” version of the hero; and 3) there must be a curse for the hero that he either surmounts or succumbs to as the price for who he is. Okay, special power, nemesis, curse. Got it. This definition suggests some direction to addressing the problems. We’ve already seen Whip’s special power – he has The Right Stuff in “Real Life Superhero” abundance. Okay, check. We also see that he has a curse, and it’s not drinking per se, though it leads to that: it’s arrogance. Hubris. Combined with a thrillseeker’s mentality and a Type-A personality that results in alcohol addiction. Check-check. But what of number 2, the nemesis? Who is the nemesis? And where are they? The choice the filmmakers seemed to make for the duration of Act II was to emphasize the “inner opponent”, the Superhero’s curse – the addiction itself – rather than the nemesis.
By doing this it actually becomes a different genre, what Blake calls Rites of Passage. It’s a specific subset – the “Addiction Passage” that centers on the life problem (in this case, addiction), the wrong way to deal with it (in this case, avoidance) and resolves with acceptance (which we see at the end). But by emphasizing ROP over Superhero, by focusing on the wrong way and curse at the expense of the nemesis, the movie becomes a character portrait and a great deal of tension and conflict is stripped away in addition to compounding the “two-movies-not-one” problem. We do see Whip argue with people during the course of Act II but none of them is the true nemesis, which is the character that confronts the hero at the climax in the obligatory scene of maximum tension – the climax or Blake’s wonderfully named Five Point Finale. That said, then the nemesis here is the NTSB investigator played by Melissa Leo. But as I’ve mentioned, we don’t see her until the climax, and we know very little about her or her attitudes towards Whip, addictions in general, or her own job and its responsibilities. Shouldn’t Act II focus on the inevitable collision of these two characters that we know will happen at the climax, and wouldn’t it be better if we knew them both quite well? Or at least better than we do now? I like the sound of that from here on my couch.
For that to work we need to see Melissa Leo in Act II and see how invested she is in nailing Whip. Looking at Act II this way also suggests a course of action that Whip could take that is not in conflict with what’s already there: he could, and should, take a far more active role in foiling the NTSB investigation and clearing his name. See, what Whip lacks in the movie right now is a mission in the middle of the movie. Act II should be the move/countermove of Nemesis against Superhero and back again, and we in the audience are engaged by the machinations of both sides. This would in fact serve as the Fun & Games of Act II – watching Whip have to wriggle out of his predicament and be every bit as good at it (he’s a consummate manipulator) as he is flying planes, and he’s matched move for move by an “ace” NTSB investigator, the best on the planet. Of course, Whip still has to deal with his curse, his addiction, and he’s still in avoidance mode, it’s just that this element should be subordinate to (in terms of narrative emphasis) the road that leads to the inevitable confrontation with the Nemesis. What I’m describing here is the Promise of the Premise, and right now it’s not there.
The above strategy is a viable solution to my second problem – Whip’s lack of direction in Act II – but only partially deals with problems number one ( “two-movie-not-one”) and three (“climax lacking power”). To deal with those we have to adopt an additional strategy. For possible answers I go to the climax, what’s already there, and look at the thing on which everything turns: it’s the question that Melissa Leo asks Whip that serves as a catalyst to his confession. This concerns Katrina, the flight attendant who died in the crash, the woman Whip was partying with in the opening scene. She’s the key. As it currently plays out in the film, Melissa Leo asks Whip whether it’s his opinion that Katrina drank the alcohol from the empty beverage bottles found at the crash site. Fingering Katrina, and thus lying (because we know he was the one who drank the bottles during the flight) was presented as “one too many lies” that he just couldn’t tell. This didn’t fully work as an effective rationale on which the whole story turns. It was plausible enough but not dramatic enough or emotional enough. It was believable, but felt thin. And the reason, in my opinion, is that we didn’t know nearly enough about Katrina nor Whip’s feelings about her. The stakes weren’t high enough because their relationship wasn’t developed. But what if instead of having the subplot about the Heroin Addict – a subplot I never fully bought into because it didn’t feel organic and therefore contributed to the sense that these were two movies, not one – what if we replaced that subplot with the relationship between Whip and Katrina?
The B Story of this film should not be Whip and the Heroin Addict (see, I can’t even remember her name, that’s how weak her impact was), it should be Whip and Katrina! Katrina should serve as the woman in Whip’s life who’s in
recovery. In the opening scene, after partying all night, we could find out she fell off the wagon (encouraged, if not coerced by him) and feels terrible about it, but vows to stop drinking forever. Since Whip isn’t willing to do the same this effectively ends their relationship which gives Whip yet another problem to deal with in Act I in addition to being hung over. Since Katrina dies at the end of Act I then their story has to be told in flashback as a parallel story during Act II. This would actually be in keeping with the ending because throughout Act II Whip would be seen reliving the past, specifically his relationship with Katrina, replaying it in his mind as he’s getting smashed, trying to forget all about it, but in fact tormented by it, and this process will peak at the climax. He’s haunted by her; by his guilt and his love.
But let’s back up for a second to the opening scene again. Katrina should tell Whip how she wants more from life than endless partying; she wants more meaning, more value (the Theme Stated, right here in the opening scene). Then, when we see her during the crash sequence leave her jump-seat as the jet is plummeting in order to help strap a child back into a seatbelt we would know what’s motivating her in that moment. She’s chasing a higher purpose; atonement. And this is something we barely see as it is happening (because we’re focused on events in the cockpit) but should see in full while Whip is being questioned by Melissa Leo. Yes, we revisit the crash at the climax. We have to.
In fact, to help make the climax feel as emotionally intense as the end of Act I, we not only have to see Whip relive the plane ride from Katrina’s point of view (he has read all the eyewitness testimony provided by Don Cheadle so he can imagine what he didn’t actually see), but we have to actually be given new information about it: we have to tell the other most heroic story that happened on the plane that day (other than Whip’s story, which we’ve seen). What we watch now is the whole of Katrina’s story, where, after successfully returning the child to its seat, she gropes back to her own seat as the plane comes in for a landing in the pasture, except now we see a smile on her face, feeling good about herself for the first time in a long time, knowing she has possibly helped save a child’s life by her heroic action (she has), and we then have to hear Whip’s voice scream from the cockpit for everyone to brace for impact, and we have to see Katrina almost get to her seat, but not quite, and when the plane hits we have to see her gruesome death as she smashes into the backside of the cockpit door (yes, something Whip should hear before he’s knocked out – though he doesn’t know what it is at the time), and then we see her broken body crumple to the floor. This would infuse the climax with an incredible energy and intensity here in the climax, where the story needs it most.
And of course it all informs Whip’s answer to Melissa Leo’s question, which would follow immediately after. This helps fuse the two movies together – the crash movie and the addiction movie – by virtue of the fact that the complete story of the crash is not told until the climax, and the very telling of it has a direct cause-and-effect impact on what happens in the addiction movie – by motivating Whip’s confession. And to goose this moment with one more bit of drama, Melissa Leo should have an ace up her sleeve – she has the missing third bottle, found only recently at the perimeter of the crash site, and it has a clear fingerprint of Whip Whitaker on it. She’s going to nail him. This gives the Nemesis a High Tower Surprise which is something that’s currently absent. She’s going to reveal this crucial evidence in the most dramatic fashion possible, the moment after he lies to her, which she knows he’s going to do, and thus she will gloriously orchestrate Whip’s well-deserved downfall. If the audience is privy to her strategy, which they have to be, then this would substantially increase the tension.
Except she never gets her chance. Whip does the last thing she expects – he tells the truth. And now we know why. It’s not simply that framing Katrina for drinking the bottles is “one too many lies” he can’t tell. It’s that he realizes what she experienced the moment before her own death, the thing she longed for most: greater meaning, greater value, atonement. She’s a hero, as he currently states in the movie right here, but it wasn’t dramatized to the extent it needed to be for the audience to really feel it. He’s so moved by this realization that he changes his mind, no longer willing to sacrifice her reputation to save his skin. And what he’s not conscious of, though we in the audience would be, is that by doing this he experiences the exact same thing she did – greater meaning, greater value, atonement! This would be all the more powerful had it been emphasized earlier how willing he was to sell her out (for instance, it could have been his idea to begin with). But not now, not anymore. He has what amounts to a spiritual conversion. In Blake Snyder terminology, he undergoes a classic and profound Transformation. Structuring it this way provides the audience with not one, but TWO TRANSFORMATIONS IN A ROW – first Katrina’s, then his. And they’re precisely the same in kind and degree, though different in their particulars. Which brings to mind another important Snyderian term: synthesis. There is synthesis between them, a new alignment as new insight into the past resolves the predicament in the present, and since it’s in the context of a love story, it’s deeply emotional and ennobling. And it links them both with the Theme Stated, just as The B Story should.
But wait! Why stop at two Transformations when there’s an opportunity for one more? What if Melissa Leo, who has been idly toying with the third bottle (wrapped in a plastic specimen bag), so eager to triumphantly reveal it, is now blindsided by Whip’s confession and realizes the third bottle is irrelevant? From a plot perspective she is completely disarmed by Whip (though inadvertently, so ironically) and she’s enraged! This is a huge setback for her. A crushing defeat! Even though she’s getting what she wants, it’s not how she wanted it to go down. It robs her of her righteous glory! So we have that powerful emotional reversal. But in order to give her a truly powerful transformational moment we need to see her in a positive light. So we give her that, too. She quickly recovers from her disappointment because a higher perception shines through: her respect for Whip’s courage in truth-telling. Her whole demeanor softens with respect. And this is another moment of Transformation and synthesis.
The dramatic effect of this sequence would go like this: Transformation-Transformation-Transformation! Bam-BAM-BAM! And this, I believe, would have an emotional intensity that would surpass the end of Act I in addition to making the two movies one. That solves the other two problems I have with the movie. I also believe that something like this is exactly what they were shooting for – Zemeckis, the writer John Gatins, and Denzel – they all wanted the climax to feel as powerful and transformational as anything put on film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. But it might have been, had Blake Snyder’s STC toolbox been brought to the task. Thank you, Blake. You rock.
Like I said, the movie and script could win Oscars just as they are. But if the script had been retooled as outlined above then chances would be far better. All Monday Morning Quarterbacks think the same thing about their Monday Morning rewrites. We can all win the Super Bowl the day after.
Thanks for joining me around the pretzel-strewn coffee table. If anyone else wants to chime in, take a shot, try to make this script better, please do. I invite debate. I invite better ideas in search of the very best. May the tradition long continue. Of course it will. It’s the movies.
I would have opened in the aftermath of the crash and – while having moments throughout – saved seeing it in full ’til Act 3 in the hearing. Then the movie could climax visually as well as emotionally.
Great article. Personally I loved the film and was okay with the personal journey rather than the external nemesis. You’re right, some additional tension might have made the film stronger but RZ made a choice and I think it worked. My only issue with the film is that it harmed itself by the use of full frontal. We all know that it harms the amount of money the film makes and you could have gotten the same effect with only partial or implied.
I really wanted this film to do well and we should all be so blessed to deliver something as strong as what RZ and team offered up.
Allow me to pull up to the coffee table with some more pretzels and a six-pack. :) I agree with a lot of what you said. When I watched the movie, I felt as if some of Katrina’s relationship with Whip had been left on the cutting room floor, so we only saw that they were party pals.
I have a different interpretation of the Melissa Leo character. Absolutely, we should have heard more about what an ace investigator she is and seen her more before the hearing. She’s the sheriff.
However, I don’t believe she was on a mission from God to bring Whip to justice. The expression on Leo’s face during the hearing made me think that she didn’t want to implicate Katrina but knew Whip would finally ‘fess up if she pushed that button. I do believe she respected Whip’s skills as a pilot, like many others who said that no one else could have saved as many lives as he did, but she also knew that airline passengers were vulnerable both to his addiction and the law of averages if he stepped into a cockpit again. If she is driven by any mission, I believe it’s keeping the friendly skies safe.
Anyway, thank you so much for your analysis, Ben. Of all the movies I’ve seen this year, FLIGHT haunts me the most. I learned a lot from your analysis – so many excellent points.
What an excellent analysis. Thank you! And so helpful.
As Picasso once said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’… I think the problem lies somewhere else, i.e. in the very inception of the story itself, what I would call a 2012 ‘updated’ (read: wish-fulfillment riddled era of ‘super-men’ vampires, werewolves, and now pilots who can bring planes down on the Hudson..) re-tooling of the excellent movie ‘Fearless’, then getting stuck in the mire of ‘how do we do our version similar, but different, without looking like shameless rip-off artists of the great Peter Weir?’
As per the comment from Peter re: holding back the crash to the end, my hunch is that the problem there is that’s exactly how Peter Weir played the crash out to great effect in ‘Fearless’ — itself an ROP tale — by holding off showing it all till the end, which I’m sure RZ was well aware of.
Where I thought you were going, oh blogmaster, was instead of flashbacks of the relationship with Katrina and so forth, that they might have supplanted the heroin addict (see, I can’t remember her name either!) with a badly banged-up Katrina who — after helping the child to his seat — is the one who survives, rather than the other stewardess (who’s name I can’t recall either): so it’s Katrina’s journey — through deciding to finally get sober — that is the counterpoint to Denzel’s journey of denial.
But this would have also mirrored ‘Fearless’ too much — in the the quasi-romantic struggle between Rosie Perez and Jeff Bridges’s character, not to mention the point you left out — the ex-wife: what about her? what abour reconciliation there? Nope…too much like ‘Fearless’ again with Mr Rossellini’s character, so…gotta leave the ex-wife as a loose thread..and in turn, leave her on the pile as yet another one of hollywood’s thinly-painted clichés of the bitchy jilted ex-wife…living in a mansion that Denzel has – somehow – clearly paid for, is the implication one assumes.
So…flashback of Whip and Katrina we must do…but then the film is again loaded with too many similarities to ‘Fearless’, itself told in multiple flash-backs….
So..what to do?
Tell it as they did.
They had nowhere else to go, and in turn left us with a film that had a shimmer of intrigue, a cool action stunt, and some good work by DW, but other than that, a hollow retread of Fearless…minus the guts, or soul.
Now I may get some tutt-tutts because I assume fearless “didn’t make a dime”, but it was a great film, was about something, and while I believe Hollywood is what it is — and has to make money — I believe in the Hollywood of tomorrow, which will be far more akin to the Hollywood of yesteryear, pre-77, than the past forty-odd years.
People will have the courage to start telling more personal journeys on broader canvases — heck they are already: look at Man of Steel, Batman, etc. Dire economic times always clear the path for an audience’s hunger for simple truths told in a multitude of ways and in all genres.
Think Rutger as he says– after just saving a stunned Harrison Ford who spent the last two hours or so (depending on the cut you see) trying to kill him — “I have seen things you people would not believe…”
That was a moment I’ll never forget. It brought tears to my eyes, and was little more than a simple existential truth told on a wide canvas, told beautifully. And while similar to much, it was unlike anything we had ever seen before.
And yes, that movie made money.
We need more of that kind of cinema, and hopefully less need for monday-morning quarterbacking : )
The audience is hungering for it, and that’s what I call a win-win.
- The Film Prince
Great analysis, Tom. Astute and thoughtful, as usual. I liked the movie a lot, and knew it had flaws, but I would not have minded at all the “third bottle” investigation with Melissa Leo that you are promoting. Then her inability to nail him wit the evidence, and her frustration? Would have been nice. And I too was underwhelmed by “heroin girl,” — can’t remember her character’s name either. Wouldn’t a story with someone who really meant something (his son) have more impact? But — like another plane crash movie, “Fearless,” which was broken and messy and ragged in all sorts of ways, it, like “Flight,” was/is somehow was memorable for its faults. The problem is, when we’ve been given greatness before by Spielberg, Zemeckis, Scott, Fincher, Hitchcock, we hold them to a very high standard. We hold them to a higher standard. We demand greatness from them. And their options for storytelling become very narrow under this pressure. Everything must be mind blowing, perfect. They aren’t allowed to make mistakes. We won’t let them. So I’m willing to let this one slide, even though, like you, I wish it was better, dammit.
- Susan S
Great analysis, Tom. Really like how you look at things. Keep posting!
- Tom Reed
Thanks everyone for your comments. This is exactly the kind of creative dialogue I was trying to provoke (and I hope more is coming). I think we all agree that the movie falls short in some indefinable way — I haven’t found anyone that loved it without reservation — and that’s what so intrigues me. Some movies totally deliver, and some don’t, and when a movie done by film giants (and Zemeckis and his gang are inarguably giants) is still somehow wanting, that somehow lacks storytelling ‘mojo’, then I can’t help but wonder why. Believe me, I don’t want to have these thoughts — I much prefer exiting a theater exalted, or moved to tears, or both, having been utterly enthralled like an Elizabethan audience member must have felt in Shakespeare’s plays in his time, or to use more recent examples, the way I felt when I first saw JAWS, or STAR WARS, or THE INCREDIBLES, or THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING — none of which ever made me once think what ‘wasn’t working’ working about the movie. But when something isn’t working, something that I really want to work, then I think of having a long sit-down with Blake to try and get to the bottom of it. The blog resulted from that imaginative exercise. I’m not sure if we hold film legends to a higher standard. I really don’t care who makes a movie, or where they come from, I just want them to ROCK. As the food critic Anton Ego so memorably says in RATATOUILLE, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” It’s great stories, great art, that we all want to see and experience, whether they’re made by brand names or not. It’s just that brands have earned their brand usually by knowing how to make a great film, so we expect that talent to be brought to bear every time. Yes, we demand greatness from them, and all of them fulfill that greatness in their unique ways. To respond to KW’s high regard for Peter Weir, I couldn’t agree more. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers. And I remember liking FEARLESS a lot when I saw it a long time ago, but I also have to admit I don’t remember much about it, other than a mesmerizing shot of Jeff Bridges walking out of what looked like a fog bank but turned out to be the burning wreckage of an airplane crash. And though I don’t really remember the plot, I totally remember it being, or feeling, “broken and messy and ragged in all sorts of ways, and yet memorable for its faults.” Extremely well put, Film Prince. However, as much as I admire Peter Weir’s filmography and his status as a film artist, I wonder if I would like that particular film as much now? Would I be as tolerant of its raggedness? I’m not sure, I’ll have to revisit it. But I don’t know how concerned Zemeckis and John Gatins were about the fiilm, if at all. From what I’ve read FLIGHT was inspired very much by the Sully Sullivan heroic plane landing, with the imaginative “what if” of having Sully being an addict. And this spin apparently came from Gatins’ own drug addiction days, so it was personal and authentic. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if “Heroin Girl” was part of JG’s autobiography. Zemeckis got involved very late in the game and I don’t believe he developed the script at all. He just liked it well enough to do it. I think FEARLESS was barely a passing thought. But my approach to this blog was to see if, had Zemeckis decided to develop it, and if he had approached it from the Snyderian perspective, putting the script through the BS2 to see how it held up, might he have hit upon some ideas that were similar to what I’ve proposed? Possibly not, because as Ben Frahm showed in last week’s blog, the script beats out very well already when it comes to the BS2. Still, I wonder, did Zemeckis have an instinct that this, like FEARLESS, was broken and messy and ragged and yet had enough authenticity and heart to make it anyway? Or was something gnawing at him; was he worried about an inactive protagonist during Act II and a climax that had less energy than the end of Act I? I bet he did worry. I bet he did. As for Blake, I’m sure, if he had read the script prior to shooting, then hh would have been worrying, too. He might have come up with different solutions, and they no doubt would have been better than mine, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the story could have been sharpened to a much finer point. ARGO totally delivers, and I think this movie could have delivered in a similar way. Not as dynamic — an NTSB hearing is not an escape by plane from Tehran International about to be stymied by Uzi-brandishing Iranian Guards — but it could have been much more intense. It also could have had more powerful Transformational moments, and all right together at the end, and if there’s any one thing I’ve learned from Blake, it’s that you can’t underestimate the power of an intensely dramatic transformation (or multiple Transformations, if possible) at your story’s end.
- Susan Modregon
I agree with a lot of what you said at the start. But I thought the separate movie was the red head’s story with her landlord and attaching to him. The crash and his alcholic denial did feel attached to me. The strong story plot was his doing anything, telling any lie to keep the secret, keep his job and avoid jail. That is what made the climax rewarding for me.
Some of your improvements had valid points, but I like Zemekis’ movie better than yours. I would seriously HATE the super hero one! What you hate with him doing nothing in act 2 is what alcoholic adicts do. There is real truth to Zemekis’ plot. Too many movies and TV about alcoholics make false ideas like dumping the bottles, stating I’m an alcohoic, and hitting rock bottom is the end of the problem. Even crashing a plane and facing the loss of everything is not rock bottom enough. People come to trust fiction to be informative with all the research that is usually on the money. Bad information can create enablers, because adicts are skilled manipulators. You even want to glamorize the alcoholics with the higher purpose and attonement. You did give me some good ideas though. There isn’t enough about his feelings for Katrina. But instead of the flashbacks what if act 2 showed his disappointed shock that Katrina wasn’t belted in the crash. Show that he called Melissa to the cock pit conciously protecting her by leaving her seated. He never understands why she died until the funeral he meets the boy and his mom who tell what she did. Then it can replay in the climax as he imagines it. But its Katrina’s first and only selfless act that changes him, so that lying about this becomes a line he won’t cross. All through act 2 he can show he has no lines he won’t cross. More truth. He can betray anyone who cares about him with lies and stealing. The crash can show Katrina gets to her seat while the plane is upside down, but can’t get up to belt herself with nobody to lift her. Then when it rolls upright she is thrown to the back and hearing brace for impact she knows she can’t get to her seat fast enough. Her last look is at the boy in his seat next to his mom, with her arm around him. Then she slams into the front neck broke. Also in act 2 I wanted to see something of him Rolling the plane in crop dusting or his dad did it. But its something he knew with small planes, it was just crazy to do it with a commercial airline. And they waited too long to bring up you had stuff in your system. I kept waiting for them to say the hospital ran tests on your blood, so you’re caught.
There was a hightower surprise with the vodka bottles alone. Who’d think that the drink service being cancelled would mess him up? But what I liked most about the end is you can compare it to SIXTH SENSE for a surprise. All through the movie we are rooting for him to quit and succeed in lies to avoid jail and loosing his career. And that ends up being HIS HAPPY ENDING! In jail he’s happy to be sober. People have forgiven him. He has his son and the red head. I would call this a Golden Fleece. What he thought he wanted turned out to be wrong at the end of his journey. Prison was the best thing for him cuz clinics don’t work. Addicts can check themselves out and use again anytime. Maybe Katrina mentions she tried to quit with a clinic before.
If you want a nemesis, I’d like to know who sabotaged him by leaving that door connecting to a room with a full liqour frig open. That’s no accident! I kept waiting for him to jump up and say FU I knew one of you were setting me up, so I got pissed and called my buddy so we could set you up. They paid for what they thought were drugs. They could have sniffed sugar and had the cops waiting, a sting. LOL Or something like that.
- Susan Modregon
Tom, glad I’m not the only one who writes so much. LOL
- Susan Modregon
Remember SIXTH SENSE started with a SHOT and ended with a chat with a sleeping lady. A very loved ending. LOL
- Tom Reed
Susan, I love your feedback. I love the idea of Whip having a memory of doing barrel rolls in crop dusters with his Dad. Nothing more be said — we’d know his expertise. That’s excellent, and efficient. As for the rest, I don’t think we’re so far apart. Maybe my use of the term “Superhero” is throwing you off from what I really mean. I would have wanted to see DW’s character lying, avoiding, manipulating, keeping his secret through Act II (dealing with his curse) — but doing it more actively, and with a purpose: to do anything to keep his wings. I think it would have created more tension and audience involvement if he felt the NTSB noose tightening around his neck more and responded by doing some outrageous (and outrageously unsympathetic) things to avoid the drop. It’s really just a matter of emphasis. Like when Don Cheadle brings up the issue of the bottles, and Katrina’s toxicology report, DW should have been all over that instead of passively accepting of the info and agreeing to somebody else’s suggestion. It should have been his suggestion, said without hesitation. All it needed was three or four more beats like this, and then we could see Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood get increasingly more uncomfortable with the process of saving Whip, which they’re doing for different reasons: for the good of the union and the airline. The way it is now their distaste with Whip seems to be more about him personally, because he’s rude and churlish and arrogant, not because of what he says or does on a moral level. I think this shift in emphasis would not be inauthentic to a true addict’s behavior, nor would it glamorize his character. If anything it would make his character more repugnant; make him even more of an anti-hero, but there would be a sense of fascination on the audience’s part watching him brazenly cross lines, with remarkable effect. I think it would have been more chilling, and that would have kept me more involved as a viewer. I loved all your ideas about Katrina, too. See, I think we agree that there needed to be more information about her, more screen time. But the movie couldn’t really absorb any more length, so then you have to think, okay, what can we cut? What can we eliminate to make room for these other things we want to include? Well, for me, that’s easy: if you make the choice to include more of Katrina, who’s essential to the plot, then you can lose a character who isn’t essential, like Redhead Heroin Girl. And if there are aspects of her character that are valuable and useful to the story, then why not fold those into Katrina? And I wouldn’t want to glamorize Katrina, I’d want to keep her as messy and damaged as possible, but something happens to her in the first scene that is her tipping point and she makes a choice to drink no more. Maybe it’s the tenth time she’s made this choice, and every single time she has made it she has meant it, but this time the events of the crash allow he to act on it in a significant, and heroic, way. Again, I love the specifics you came up with. And yes, corrupting her story becomes the line DW will not cross — once he knows the whole story, and once he’s put into a position to publicly renounce it. This is the way it was built, but to me, this scene just didn’t deliver with the power that it could have, or should have, not through any fault of the directing or the performance, but in the writing of it. In the construction of it. And I do love that he basically reframes his in jail as something positive. That was great. The story turns right at the end on giving up his quest to protect himself and his addict’s life. I loved that. Except I wish it had been more of a quest, ya know? I wish we had felt his investment in getting himself acquitted more, and one way to do that is by making him more active in clearing his name, and building tension from the Melissa Leo side. To make room for that is another reason to cut Heroin Girl and focus on Katrina because that relationship doesn’t have to built from the ground up, it can be referenced more effeciently and powerfully, whether Katrina survives (interesting idea!) or not. Oh — and did Melissa Leo’s side try to stack the deck by unlocking that door? I love that. Maybe it wasn’t sanctioned by ML, but done by one of her agents who saw her mounting frustration over the fact that this public menace was going to probably keep his flying license and be the cause of another crash in the future?! Answering the question of who did it might not be important, but the way it is now the question is barely raised because it could as easily have been random happenstance that allowed the door to be open, an oversight by the cleaning crew, or whatever, and I much prefer it have been purposeful. Susan, all really good thoughts. See, it’s the really good movies, the Near-Great films that could have been Truly-Great that inspires these spitballing sessions. THE SIXTH SENSE is perfect. End of story. Yeah, I can write a lot. :)
- Susan Modregon
Is anything ever perfect? ;)
As a QB now, I never really got the red door knob much. I can guess that the table was there because his wife never used his office. And when the door was locked he always reached for a key. Are we to think that he has been ghosting through the door without realizing it? I would’ve liked a flash back making that clearer. And it would’ve been a bonus to have more of a hint on what would happen to his wife after he leaves. How was he causing her depression? But it’s really hard to find fault with that one. ACES!
Glad we’re on the same page with Flight. When I say Melissa I’m refering to the survived stewardess. I think that was the name he called. I would’ve thought the black man with glasses (don’t know name) would have been a better sabatuer with the door than investigator Leo. I felt he wasn’t on Whip’s side earlier. It would’ve been good to see Leo discuss and hint a back story that she knows adicts are self destructive, even suicidal, and that would not be a good pilot in control despite his expertise. And not knowing limits could cause him to sieze or overdose at the controls. I don’t think it should be so much about nailing him as it is about protecting the public. She voiced too much respect for his skills. I think it’s regretable to loose him. In fact in the prison someone could voice, how it this fair? Yeah you took drugs; but you still weren’t responsible for the accident, you saved everyone, and they knew that! But the answer turns out is that Leo knew that prison was the only way to possibly fix him and maybe get him back to piloting or training others. The clinics don’t work can come from her. She could be an ally seeing him in prison. How’s that for a twist?
But of course this is all after the fact with more than one brain bouncing ideas. Zemekis is really a great one I’ve loved since BTTF.
- Tom Reed
I love any suggestion that gives the Nemesis a strong and understandable rationale for wanting to nail Whip, and also anything the contributes to a feeling of Transformation at the end. Making it clear that she (Melissa Leo) had the public’s welfare, and even Whip’s best interests, at heart is a fantastic revelation, but I would save that for the end to work as a twist in exactly the way you suggest. It’s a subtle twist, but allows the audience to see a character in a whole new — and positive — way. I would love to have seen that. And yes, RZ is a favorite of mine and always has been. WFRR? is a masterpiece. And he helped Peter Jackson at a key moment in his career, having helped him make THE FRIGHTENERS, which helped PJ to go on and make the LOTRs and now THE HOBBIT. So thank you, RZ, for everything.
- Susan Modregon
Okay you mentioned all my favorites. THE FRIGHTENERS. I admit it. I’m a FOX fan. I’d love to have him in my own script. Animated so the parkinsons wouldn’t get in the way. But RZ was credited for his growth, bringing out the intensity in his acting. The invention RZ made so actors can play off themselves in BTTF 2 and let the camera move was really ground breaking. I almost didn’t get that 1st abreviation. Rodger Rabbit was a great world and no doubt had its influence in my own cartoon character world plot.
But in all I wouldn’t be hard on the RZ for FLIGHT. It kept my interest and I’m not huge on drama. He made the right decision in killing Katrina, and I’d hold off on flash backs in act 2. There are better ways to show how Whip felt and how Katrina was. Like Whip’s face over some old pictures. And I like RZ’s decision to not have Katrina get profound wanting to change. It’s much better to just see her spot a kid out of his seat and decide that she couldn’t just sit safely in her own and do nothing. There’s nothing selfish, like going for some higher purpose. It’s just a selfless act. That makes it all the better. The less she glorifies herself, the more we glorify her. And that makes it easy to see why her act would impact Whip. If she didn’t die it wouldn’t impact him so much and the easy lie wouldn’t be available if she lived to speak for herself. Maybe Whip could’ve used Katrina’s bad acts to justify himself. Adicts don’t think they’re so bad if there are others just as bad as themselves. Then when he learns what she did when he meets the boy and his mom, he can’t do that anymore. Katrina is now better than him. That is much better than your guilt over getting her to use idea, I think. But I like bouncing off ideas with you. I could probably use that in my own writing. If you’d want to write me at my email you can write to [email protected]
- Tom Reed
Susan, it’s so nice to know we’re very much on the same page in general, but have differing (and well-thought-out and well-defended) opinions about how to handle the story. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I invited folks to the table, and you threw yourself in with gusto. I thank you for that, and I thank everyone else who chimed in. It’s the STC Writer’s Room! I like it! And believe me, I’m not trying to be hard on RZ. I adore his movies and always have, and I believe I acknowledged that at the get-to of my creative wanderings about how to reimagine certain aspects of FLIGHT. Hey, I even gave RZ a pass on BEOWULF, which I actually walked out of I thought it was so bad. But the fact is I was disappointed in this film; I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be, and to reference Sam Cohn, my ass started to hurt. I want greater involvement as I continue to watch a movie, not lesser. My interest flagged. I agree that Katrina had to die, but I also firmly think that this is the key relationship in the story that was woefully underdeveloped, primarly because they decided to use Heroin Girl as the B Story. I would forcefully advocate the swap, and I would also forcefully advocate the use of flashbacks in Act II as a parallel story to Whip’s increasing efforts to thwart the inexorable advance of the NTSB. I think flashbacks would be efficient, and motivated by his binges, and also could have had a touch of poetry to them. A lyrical melancholy. I think that could have juxtaposed well with Whip’s urgency and mounting desperation in regards to clearing himself. This is what Act II was missing for me. And these two trains — his reminiscences about Katrina and the NTSB investigation — collide at the climax in a profound way, much more forcefully than how they played it. I would advocate having Katrina turn an important corner at the beginning, a turn away from life with Whip (the addict’s life), and she would thus serve as the woman in his life who has “embraced recovery”, much like how they used Heroin Girl (okay, I know her name now, finally — it’s Nicole, I think). I actually agree with what you’re saying about not glorifying Katrina. The use of terms like “redemption” and “atonement” always so sound pious and grandiose, even when they’re intended to be arrived at through the dramatics in the most subtle and realistic way possible. I don’t mean for Katrina to wear a T-Shirt with a scarlett “A” on the front, “A for Atonement!” God, no. It’s just that at the beginning, if she decides to quit using because she wants “something more”, then it’s a step away from the self-absorbtion demanded by any addiction and a step towards a less limited life. Addiction crowds everything else out, especially valuing other people in and of themselves. The act of saving a child is an act of valuing another person, and no T-shirt is required. But in the end how any of us personally respond to stories and to drama is intensely subjective, and my guess is you prefer ‘less is more,’ and I usually prefer ‘more.’ I prefer swinging for the fences and making things as intense as they can possibly be without straining credulity or psychological authenticity, especially at the climax. I’ve really enjoyed this back and forth, as well, and I’ll look you up at your website. Cheers. Tom
- Susan Modregon
I’ve actually leaned on the more side in my writing. It kind of gets me in trouble with too many pages at times. I had to re-train myself to learn that sometimes more can be said with less and to trust the audience to read more into it. I agreed with your idea to replay the crash in the climax for more intensity and we both agree in adding to Katrina and dropping Nichole. We just have different ideas on how to do that. But I really don’t think much should change with act 1. I liked the indifferent attitude of the two in the opening. The affair was casual and routine, as was going to work. That let the drama start when the plane was in danger. Up till that there was no previous intensity. That’s where the story gets going. That’s the heart of everything.
That was actually my email I gave you. The closest thing I have to a website is my page on Facebook. I mostly respond to Facebook messages through my email. I’ll be looking for you.
I haven´t seen the movie yet.
But I really enjoy an inspiring discussion like this one above.
I think it is far more helpful to use Blake´s methods in order to analyize why certain
films or parts of films don´t work instead of just reaffirming box office hits by squeezing their
parts into the BS2. Somehow you can fit any movie into the BS2. But most movies nowadays – even the
most celebrated ones (like ARGO from my view, and certainly THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION) – they really fail, or don´t fire on all cylinders.
Why is that?
In hindsight it is much easier to pinpoint the mistakes. Writing a script from blank page to shooting draft is a completely different ball game. Still – analyzing the mistakes of finished films can help us in the writing process.
So please – keep up the critical analysis.
Nice holidays to you all.
- Thor Gold
Congratulations! You cracked the problem with “Flight”. Had the writer and director done the above, then at the end, we would have believed Denzel Washington’s character could not lie. Unfortunately, as it stands now, I don’t believe Denzel Washington’s character would tell the truth at the end. It’s too bad, because this was a good film that could have been great!
I like your movie version of Flight so much better…the two stories just never intersected and did not work for me…it wouldn’t have been quite so bad if this was a small character study. But you can’t start a movie with a BANG and then go out with a whimper…
I just thinking they could have raised the mystery and intrigue for the audience members if we were told off the bat by Whip that he definitely didn’t drink or do drugs the day of the crash, and his crew supported him, and then little by little the facts of the flight come to light and he has to fess up to the true nature of his addiction (and others have to stop protecting him just because he’s a good guy).
Plus, I would have cared about him a lot more if the first image I saw of him was saving a plane load of people and not snorting coke. That was no “Save the Cat” moment!
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Well done! Great argument. I really loved this film, even more than most and was very reluctant to read your notes. I figured I’d shrug them off to subjectivity.
But I was curious. So I kept reading to see if I disagreed with your specific points, and if you were perhaps trying to force Blake’s system on this…
…but nope. You nailed it.
As much as I loved this film, your analysis is dead on, and had your notes been executed as well as the rest of the film was executed, I would have liked it even more.