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.
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