Flight

flightI was about half way through this 150 page script when I realized that my notes about it were riddled with the same word over and over.

Interesting.

The things happening on the pages were interesting to me– not good, not outstanding, just interesting.

Having now reflected on the story’s Sum for a while, I stand by the word that kept coming up while I was reading. This script is interesting. I won’t say it’s good. I certainly won’t say it’s outstanding. But, it kept me reading from page 1 to 150. Sometimes, I even read it voraciously.

I think I understand why it received its Academy Nominations. There is enough thematic prestidigitation, impressive tension inducing scenes, and realistically gritty depictions of the struggle with addiction, to justify an Oscar response. To that long list I will personally add that, structurally speaking, I learned a hell of a lot from this script.

All of which means Flight is, for sure, an interesting ride.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) I thought the exposition was handled fairly well. There are a few things we need to know about Whip to understand his extreme problems with drugs. Most of these trickle out slowly; more often than not, we learn about them through the action rather than the dialogue.

For example, we know Whip’s ex-wife and his teenage son won’t talk to him because we see the way Whip is now. We don’t see (and we don’t need to see) what happened in their collective pasts. We can very easily extrapolate from their separate presents.

On the other hand, the backstory of the other major character, Nicole, is rendered almost entirely through exposition. She just tells us how she ended up a junkie.

The details of her descent are also (decidedly) strange. I’m not sure I quite buy their accumulation as a coherent addiction story. Suffice it to say that (for the purposes of what we are trying to rate about the script) it’s just true that each fact about her arrives by way of exposition.

From pages 93-94:

NICOLE
And your mom?

WHIP
Dead…she’s dead. Your dad still
alive?

NICOLE
I’m pretty sure my father lives in
Colorado.

WHIP
You got no relationship with him.

NICOLE
He drank. It was my mom that
raised me. She was incredible.

NICOLE lights a cigarette as the memories are tough.

NICOLE (CONT’D)
She held it together for so long, I
couldn’t tell how sick she was.
Even through chemo she looked
beautiful.

NICOLE leans over and blows out the candle.

NICOLE (CONT’D)
They gave her very heavy meds for
pain. Dilauded, morphine,
oxycontin. I started taking them
with her. We would get all
medicated and sit in our back yard
and talk and talk and watch the sun
go down. We’d be so stoned that we
couldn’t get up to go inside when
it got dark.
(laughs, fights the pain)
I know it sounds crazy to get
hooked on dope with your mom, but
she was dying and we spent her last
seven months together like
teenagers, trading stories about
boys and whatever. She loved me.

This isn’t the heaviest dose of exposition ever, but when we combine it with the thematic exposition delivered by the cancerous (but cigarette consuming) Gaunt Young Man in the hospital stairwell (I’ll bring him up again at the tail end of question 3), it is taxing enough to deduct a few points.

7 out of 10 points.

Part B) I can’t say that there is a strong current of subtext present in any of the characters. We do, however, get part of the way to good subtext in the characters of Hugh and Charlie. These guys are non-addicts, and yet they do just as much lying as the hopelessly addicted Whip.

The idea at the core of this plot is that lying about one’s actions is intrinsically part of the harmful behaviors addicts manifest. A version of this idea also functions as the dramatic climax of the script, so you would think its parallel appearance in the minor characters would be laden with subtext. Instead, we get overt references that only populate the last few pages. The first time the idea is stated out loud doesn’t even happen until page 135:

WHIP
Do not tell me how to lie about my
drinking. I’ve been lying about my
drinking my whole life.

The weight this idea carries deserves a much fuller expression than it currently gets. It almost confuses the issue to have the dialogue of the characters in the script who tell the most lies (other than Whip) be non-addicts. Their goodness is surely tainted by their lies, but I don’t know what the script wants me to deduce from the parallels. Charlie and Hugh lie a lot but aren’t addicts. Whip lies a lot but is an addict. To me, this ends up as message confusion.

6 out of 10 points.

Part C) The character individuation was excellent. You can see this in major characters like Whip and Nicole, but it also shows up strong in minor characters like Harlan and Mr. Carr.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Considering the story that can be told in Flight, the opening 10 pages are bizarre– to say the least.

It takes until after page 50 before the script makes any attempt to tie Nicole into the Whip storyline at all. Before that attempt begins, her presence in his story feels completely random.

After getting to 50 the first 10 pages make some sense (I suppose the author is setting up how far down inside the addiction rabbit hole his main characters actually are), but they felt really wobbly before getting to 50.

Speaking of rabbit holes, I felt like I was the one “feeding my head” when page 7 brought Nicole to the Othello Porn Site. Really?

12 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Structurally (if you can pardon a stupid pun) this script soars. I love the set-up to each of the reveals. This part of the script is, in my opinion, its greatest strength.

Imagine opening this script as an industry reader. You would have the logline and nothing else to judge the contents by. To recreate the experience, let’s list the logline as it’s written on imdb:

An airline pilot saves a flight from crashing, but an investigation into the malfunctions reveals something troubling.

That’s actually a poor logline because it makes it sound as though the plane doesn’t crash. Still, the point about an industry reader survives even this (admittedly) poor logline. The one thing you are going to be tensed for as you move through this script is the moment when the pilot protagonist gets in a plane and stuff starts to go wrong.

The author recognizes this, knows the logline has killed the suspense of this plane going down, so he throws us a curve. He has the plane seem to go down before it actually goes down. This pretend crashing of the plane lasts from pages 10-20. It is really suspenseful and well written. It would be interesting even if it were the crash. It is doubly so because it is not the crash.

Because of this feint, we actually end up on page 40 before the plane crashes for real. This postponement of the inevitable by way of substitution is a miraculous technique for forcing a reader through your pages. Today’s writer (whether consciously or not I’m not sure) designs his whole script around this technique.

flight 7After the plane crash, here is a list of the remaining reveals:

1. Will the other people in Whip’s story maintain the lie about him that he tells himself and the world? (Namely, that he is a hero in spite of all his lies.)

2. Can Whip quit drinking long enough to fake his way through the investigation?

3. Will Whip accept responsibility for ALL the actions of his life?

At different points in the script each of these questions is emphasized in isolation. The answer to each of these comes later than we first think it will, and only after a substitute answer is given as a decoy.

Distilled to a lesson, the idea here is to set screenwriting 101 theory on its head and let your reveals out of the bag early, build your story to one of these reveals, and give the reader a saccharine reveal before you hit them with the good stuff.

You have to, of course, be careful with this technique because you can’t just hit the reader with a blast of saccharine that tastes like a deus ex machina. But, if the substitute for the expected reveal was in the script all along (and in each case this was true of Flight) the reader will feel rewarded.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) The engine of this script is: Can Captain Whip Whitaker ever tell the truth about himself? We move through every one of these pages to get the answer to this question. It is more than appropriate, then, that Whip’s engine trouble comes couched in the language of addiction.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) According to my reading, the theme of Flight is either:

Everything happens for a reason.

or

True heroism comes from telling yourself the truth about yourself.

Evidence for the first theme comes from the thematic exposition scene (I feel like I have to point out that this is his one and only scene) with the Gaunt Young Man. Quoted from page 57:

GAUNT YOUNG MAN
Bullshit, I do. Random act of God?
Don’t think so. Survive a plane
crash to meet a gorgeous girl in a
stairwell. Fuck you man.

This “random act of God” phraseology is repeated often by many of the characters after its initial appearance here. Weilding my critiquer’s power (somewhat loosely), I am willing to guess that this was the theme the writer began his story with.

Evidence for the second thematic possibility does not appear until the already quoted line from page 135:

WHIP
Do not tell me how to lie about my
drinking. I’ve been lying about my
drinking my whole life.

It then appears liberally in the remaining 15 pages of the script. I will also reiterate that this idea is latent in the characters of Charlie and Hugh from their introduction.

This muddying of the theme waters prevents either idea from gaining prominence or producing resonance:

5 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) Everything concerning the flight of the plane and the way in which it crashes is unquestionably unique. This is either the result of painstaking research or years of on the job training– I don’t know which and am not sure I want to know. (It would be cool if this writer were also a pilot and not just a really faithful reader of Fate is the Hunter).

Either way, it is truly impressive:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing itself is pretty good. There is expert level understanding of how to create tension in a story. I also thought the action sequences were taught and inspired. But the relationships? I don’t know…

Flight2I will say that I never really bought the idea that Whip and Nicole actually care for each other. It felt like writerly manipulation to give more weight to the random acts of God theme.

3 out of 5 points.

5. Is there a sufficient avenue to production? In other words, does the script have something about it that will make actors want to act in it, directors want to direct it, and producers want to risk their money producing it? (10 points)

This is one that I think is easily answered. I would have greenlit this based on a single storyboard image of a jetliner flying upside down several hundred feet over the streets of Atlanta. That image sells itself.

On top of this we have strong lead parts in Whip and Nicole. There are equally strong supporting parts in Charlie and Hugh. Actors will be on board.

The budget (it was 31 million) is mostly absorbed by the 30 pages of trouble that happen to the plane before it finally goes down (and all the name actors and director). In other words, this has the shots that will fill seats without the continued risk of losing a pile of money with expensive followups to the images that end up in the trailer.

An easy:

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 78

 

Another of “the found” reviews. Although this version of the five question format has been discarded, I admit to liking what it was aiming to accomplish. It is ALMOST preferable to the current five. Perhaps it comes down to the difference between what one wants from one’s criticism. Also, if I remember correctly, the bonus questions in Bowdlerizing Kant account for the difference between the questions anyway. That version has its cake and eats it too.

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