“You put me in a broken plane!” wails Denzel Washington’s character, secret alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker, in Flight, after crash-landing a malfunctioning 737. Replace “plane” with “movie,” and he’s exactly right.
The Oscars are handed out next week and Flight was inexplicably nominated for best writing after mild critical acclaim, Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by John Gatins, is not a good movie. But let’s be real: I saw Flight because I wanted to see a commercial airliner fly upside-down. I didn’t expect it to be good. I also didn’t expect it to be rife with misogyny, so when it opened with gratuitous female full-frontal nudity, I was a little confused. I had been promised harrowing turbulence! When, I wondered, would the real story begin?
Spoiler alert: A good story never begins. But the objectification soldiers on, bolstered by stale sexist tropes that Gatins seems to have all but copied and pasted from old standbys of the romance and horror genres.
In case you were wondering, the naked person in the film’s opening, with whom Whip snorts coke and has sex but does not seem to have what you might call a Meaningful Emotional Connection, or even a real conversation, turns out to be Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), a flight attendant on his crew, which I can only assume is an uninspired attempt to show he’s edgy. I mean really. A maverick pilot? WHERE HAVE I SEEN THAT BEFORE?!
Moving right along, the next time we see Katerina, she’s abruptly killed off during the plane inversion, thus ushering Flight into the grand horror film tradition of girl-with-sex-drive-gets-killed-first. Thanks for that.
The sexist circlejerk bumbles ahead, giving us Nicole (Kelly Reilly), Whip’s new manic pixie ladyfriend, a fellow addict and masseuse (seriously) whose purpose is apparently to cry very prettily, thus challenging Our Hero to get out of his funk and Become a Better Man. Only a cryfest this sentimental and shallow could make me long for a manic pixie tale in the style of Zooey Deschanel. At least when I watch those movies, I can hate-chuckle at “quirky” jokes and admire some Peter Pan collars and sweet knitting skills. Watching Flight, I mainly just wanted Nicole to find a really good therapist.
The third archetype of Flight’s lady-apocalypse is a motherly flight attendant named Margaret (Tamara Tunie), because I can only assume that after two tries at writing women, Gatins was like, what else do they DO? Oh yeah, MOMS.
I don’t mean to criticize the women who ended up in these diminished roles—bad writing incapacitates even the best actors, Vazquez, Reilly, and Tunie do their best, and certainly the problem is systemic. It goes beyond just one film. But what I find potentially damaging about Flight is that it has received more attention for (subpar) writing and casting Denzel Washington as a total douche (so daring!) than for its negative depiction of women. Its misogyny has gone largely unquestioned.
In Flight’s final moments, at an investigation into the crash, Whip faces a line of questioning—empty vodka bottles in the hull!— that could expose his substance abuse, effectively destroying him. The only way to save his reputation is to throw the deceased Katerina under the bus.
You kind of have to hand it to Gatins for finally giving character development a half-assed try when he has Whip tell the truth, contradicting every choice Whip has made thus far, ostensibly to defend Katerina’s honor. But there’s also something sinister in it. Gatins and Zemeckis mean-spiritedly expect viewers to believe in the transformative power of an essentially invisible relationship involving a character who appears on screen for maybe all of ten minutes, and whose main character development involves her being naked. It’s Lifetime Original nonsense, and because it’s unearned, the sentiment just doesn’t work.
It’s not just feminists who should roll their eyes at Zemeckis and Gatins’s film—all audiences should notice that the film is hurt by underdeveloping these female characters. By neglecting to write complex women, they’ve taken an ending that could have been emotionally affecting (albeit cheesy as hell) and turned it into a rushed, tacked-on bit of hokum that comes off as patently false. Realistic female characters aren’t just a nice idea. Flight proves, in a bad way, that believable characters are essential for all good movies.