Not Our Fight

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Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




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TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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Nude No More

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The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it will begin removing the full-body X-ray scanners that have been in use at US airports for the past three years. It's about time. Europe outlawed them long ago for being too invasive. Overzealous TSA guards have used them as an excuse to get vicious with travelers who simply want to get to their planes on time, without having to provide a nudie show for the screeners hidden away in a darkened room somewhere with their hands on who-knows-what. I'm all for security when I travel, but these scanners have done little to thwart terrorism.

I love how the TSA announcement blames the decision on business instead of owning up to the fact that the things don't work and aren't necessary. Here's their official reason: "The maker of the scanner failed to meet a deadline for new software." Ha! It's never the government's fault.




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Addicted to Flight

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The first five minutes of Flight are gratuitously graphic — and I'm not talking about the plane crash.

The film opens on the tip of a bare breast and pulls back to reveal a naked young woman who stumbles to the bathroom and back to bed, where she dons her scanties and lights up a joint. Meanwhile her lover wakes to the sound of his cellphone and argues with a caller, most assuredly his ex-wife, who is asking for money. He finishes the call, reaches for a glass from the bedside table, and downs last night's booze before taking a hit from the girl's joint. Tired, hung over, and angry at his ex-wife, the man dresses and takes a gasp of cocaine to clear his head and focus his brain. Then he dons his captain's hat. He is about to pilot a plane.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a crackerjack former Navy pilot who knows how to handle his liquor. While buckling in, he orders black coffee from the head flight attendant (Tamara Tunie), then takes a couple of giant whiffs of pure oxygen, much to the horror of his young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty). Fortunately, when it comes to flying a plane, Whip knows what he's doing. Half an hour before landing, the elevator fails in the tail, forcing the plane to nose dive straight toward the ground. Relying mostly on instinct, he manages a spectacular landing and saves almost everyone aboard from what would have been certain death.

Thus begins the dilemma of the film. Whip is a hero, right? The crash was caused by mechanical failure, not by pilot error. In fact, Whip's quick thinking and masterly piloting prevented nearly a hundred deaths. Yet his alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Should he be praised for the 98 lives he saved, or held accountable for the six passengers who died?

With Denzel at the helm, I expected this to be a film about a casual drinker who may have had a glass of wine the night before flying and is unfairly punished because of arbitrary and unbending government regulation. I thought this would be an interesting libertarian study. Instead, it is about an out-of-control alcoholic who still flies jet airplanes for a living. Although the trailers for Flight promise a thrilling disaster movie on par with Airport (1970), the movie is actually a character study more akin to Days of Wine and Roses (1962).

It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape.

Once you realize that's what it is, it is quite good. We see Whip go through all the classic problems of the addicted personality. Disgusted with himself, he pours out all his alcohol (and he has alcohol of every shape and brand hidden just about everywhere). He sobers up for a few days, and then he buys more. He destroys relationships with family and friends. When a drinking buddy decides to sober up, he walks away.

In one unforgettable scene at the home of Whip's ex-wife, his teenage son confronts him and swears at him, telling him to leave their house. Whip is furious. He wants to hit his son for sassing him, but he knows that if he does, he'll be arrested. So he hugs him instead. It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape. It’s also a lie. Pure genius, and for those who have experienced that kind of aggression, it rings frighteningly true. This is a man who knows how to beat the system, with a smile on his face.

What I find most troubling about this story is the fact that Whip's colleagues know that he is an alcoholic, and they do nothing to stop it. I'm no Pollyanna — I recognize that most alcoholics are surrounded by enablers who help them lie — but Whip is putting their own lives in danger. When a nurse looks the other way as an alcoholic doctor prepares for surgery, she may be thinking, "Why should I get involved?" The person on the operating table is a stranger, first of all, and the rest of the surgical team will watch for mistakes. The nurse's own life isn't in jeopardy. It’s wrong, but you can understand it. Yet what would induce a flight attendant to board a plane captained by an inebriated pilot? If he crashes the plane, she goes down with it too.

Nevertheless, research shows that many pilots and flight attendants have problems with substance abuse. Random blood tests identify several pilots each year with alcohol levels above the legal limit, and the FAA has a policy — a policy! — of requiring substance abusers to go through rehab therapy before returning to work. Yes! They are allowed to return to the skies! If you weren't afraid of flying before, you probably ought to be now. The only saving grace is the fact that autopilot controls most flights these days, and the chances of having an inebriated pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit at the same time are fairly slim.

The members of Whip’s flight crew know he's an alcoholic, but they don't turn him in. His girlfriends enjoy getting high with him. His attorneys (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle) are more concerned with winning his case than with protecting the flying public. They will do anything to shelter Whip, and Whip will do anything to get away with what he’s doing. A friend of mine who grew up with two alcoholic parents wisely observed, "The AA confession should be 'I'm an alcoholic . . . and I'm a liar,'" because being addicted to anything always leads to lying. Deception at first, then half truths, then outright lying. Addicts get so good at it! Both weaknesses have to be acknowledged before the person can change.

And then there is his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman). Harling struts into the scene channeling Wolfman Jack with his dark glasses, goatee, greasy pony tail, oversized bowling shirt, and Rolling Stones soundtrack ("it's just a shot away" of course). Goodman revels in this role. It's probably the most fun he's had since . . . well, since last month's Argo. Goodman seems to love every part he plays, and it's infectious.

Harling is a pharmaceutical distributor who dispenses cocaine with the precision of a medical doctor. He even makes house calls. When the alcohol has created too much of a depressant, he prescribes just the right amount of stimulant to elevate the brain and get it leveled off. He's a pro.

And yes, in case you hadn't noticed, the plane crash itself is a metaphor for the alcoholic. When the chemical "elevator" stops working, Whip goes into a dive and crashes, destroying others in his path. He tries to whip himself into shape, but he can't do it alone. He needs help.

Like Days of Wine and Roses, this film could have become maudlin, preachy, and overlong. But also like that classic film, Flight rises on the strength of the actors who inhabit it, and the ending soars. It's an important film. I just wish Hollywood weren't so addicted to pushing the edge of decency. While that opening scene is important for establishing Whip's character, the nudity is simply unnecessary.


Editor's Note: Review of "Flight," directed by Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 2012, 138 minutes.



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