Friday, November 9, 2012

Flight and The Sessions

              Feelin’ Alright … Well, Some of the Time Anyway
                          Review by Ken Burke        Flight
A powerful story of a heroic action done by a very un-heroic guy, an alcoholic also addicted to denial whose life is put in the crosshairs of a major fork in his road.

                                                                              The Sessions      

Based on actual Mark O’Brien who was determined that his shortened, iron-lung life would include sex before he died; funny, sensual, heartfelt story of real people.

            Back in his Saturday Night Live days in the late 1980s Jon Lovitz frequently played the egotistical Master Thespian whose catch phrase, delivered haughtily at the end of the skit, was “Acting!”  My fortunate pleasure in the last week has been to see four examples of superb acting (enhanced by a lot of solid, equally effective supporting work) which is the ultimate focus of this combo review (once again, the reality of what I encounter overwhelms the “I’ve just got time to explore one film during this always-busy work week” self-pledge, but at least I’ll try to be concise [in retrospect, as usual it didn’t work]—which for me means the Staten Island phone book rather than the Brooklyn one).  We’ll start with Denzel Washington in Robert Zemeckis’ impeccable direction of Flight, the best argument I’ve seen to give Washington another Oscar since he got his last one (for Training Day [Antoine Fuqua, 2001])—although he’s already got fierce competition from Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), John Hawkes in The Sessions (more on this one follows below), and possibly the leading contender with Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (which I haven’t seen yet, but with it opening this weekend I’ll likely be reviewing it, along with the return of James Bond [Daniel Craig] in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, next week).  As Flight Captain Whip Whitaker, Washington presents an amazing complex of skill, substance dependency and abuse, confidence, denial, ego, and human failure—a marvelously complex character given substantial depth of flawed humanity in the portrayal.  We know upon first view of Whip that he’s not exactly whipped into great shape to be piloting a plane from Orlando to Tampa that morning as we see the residue of the drinking, smoking, and sex (with Flight Attendant Trina Marquez [Nadine Velasquez]—whose naked body lacks nothing in shape, unlike the slightly puffy reality of Whip whose sheet covering might be attributed to actor star status and contract control, at least until we get a clear butt shot later on—from the night before; Whip’s over-stimulated/semi-comatose condition is well illustrated here and at other points on the soundtrack by Joe Cocker’s plaintive “Feelin’ Alright,” which I note a link to at the end of the review), but help is at hand from a handy line of cocaine in the motel room and a couple of clandestine mini-bottles of vodka poured into some orange juice once the airplane is skyward (he probably felt he needed a reward after powering through some rough turbulence upon takeoff).

            From there the day goes downhill (literally!) fast as (what we find out later) a faulty tail-assembly part leads to a rapid nose dive over which Whip has little control from cockpit instruments or proper power from suddenly flaming, then defunct engines.  This scene is presented in effectively harrowing fashion by a great combination of intense closeup shots of Whitaker, other crew members, and passengers frantically fighting the desperation that their inevitable ends (as opposed to Washington’s rather well-rounded end) are about to arrive; quick cuts of jarring, jumpy images; and an overall feeling of hopeless helplessness that seems to have no solution. Whip manages to pull off a miraculous landing by first slowing down the descent speed by inverting the plane, then bouncing to a crash in a field so that despite the damage only 6 of the 102 “souls” who began the trip go on to the afterlife (1 of whom is Trina, so hopefully she got enough of a “lift” the night before to help ease her into a new level of consciousness).

            Whip’s consciousness is quickly shifted from hero savior of 96 to potential manslaughterer of the 6 victims because of the evidence in his blood levels taken while he’s passed out in the hospital so he tries several tactics to deny his problems including hiding out on his aviator dad’s (a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group celebrated last winter in Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tales and reviewed in this blog in the Jan. 29, 2012 posting) old farm, trying to distract himself from his troubles with the law and his ex-wife, Deana (Garcelle Beauvais), and son, Will (Justin Martin), by taking up with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict attempting to recover her life, whom he meets while recovering in the hospital (although in a nice bit of planned coincidence Whip’s damaged airplane raced over her motel as she was being taken to that same hospital after an overdose) but sneaking into the stairwell for a smoke (he also meets a young guy dying of cancer [played by James Badge Dale], ironically also getting some contraband nicotine, who delivers a great “sermon” on the inevitability of life and the impossibility of controlling it [reminding me of William Munny’s great lines in Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood as Munny and director, 1992):  “We all got it comin’, kid” and “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”], a short but powerful speech which should at least be considered when we get around to Best Supporting Actor nominations in a couple of months).

            Despite a few attempts to clean up his act as circumstances keep piling up against his weak claims of innocence until he’s on the verge of being rescued by sharp lawyer-for-the-airline Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), with help from pilot’s union rep and friend-to-the-bitter-end-even-though-he’s-reaching-his-limits Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), Whitaker just can’t live up to any of their needs and expectations, partly because he’s so convinced that his ability to hide his raging alcoholism for so long will continue to protect him (although it’s already cost him his marriage and the respect of his teenage son), partly because he’s so proud of himself for having saved most of the people on the flight (simulations showed that no one else could have been so successful under those circumstances), and partly because he just is too weak to resist temptation, even the night before the crucial hearing to determine the level of responsibility he must accept for the crash, so he crashes himself again with a bender of more tiny bottles he accesses in the adjoining room to his supposedly safe hotel hideaway.  Temporary salvation comes once again from his completely amoral buddy and dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), who arrives the next morning to pump him up with coke (not the kind you get in cans from Atlanta) in order to be sharp for the inquiry (with Harling and other of Whip’s anti-conformity allusions nicely illustrated by the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “Gimme Shelter” [take a listen to this compelling tune, you know you want to—even if Philadelphia Inquirer (Did Charles Foster Kane used to own that paper?) film critic Steven Rea misidentified it as “Sympathy for the Devil”—at, although I’m not sure if you have to pay royalties to Jagger and Richards or to Martin Scorsese because he’s used it so much in many of his films]), but finally the denials come to an end when Whip’s forced to fully clear himself by blaming the empty vodka bottles found in the plane’s wreckage on Trina, simply because she’s had substance abuse problems in the past and isn’t there to defend herself.  This confrontation with abusing the truth concerning a dead colleague/occasional lover proves to be the final straw for Captain Whitaker who breaks down and confesses, leading to a jail term, sobriety, reconnection with his son, and a sense of sincere self-worth for his restructured life that is able to replace the falsely constructed pride and double existence that he’d tried to maintain for so long, knowing that he was a huge disappointment to himself, his wife and son, and the son he wanted to be for his own father, despite his airborne accomplishments even before the day of destruction.

            Some may think that the ending is too romantic, too preachy to be believed about a man who has failed himself for so long to now be able to renounce his damaged persona so easily (as with Claude Raines as Senator Paine finally confessing the whole corrupt Taylor political machine in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939], a film that sadly never goes out of relevance), but I think it’s not presented as easy at all—Whip’s been running from himself his whole life, trying to manufacture a sense of command and bravado that only existed in his mind when he was generally out of his mind.  His personal crash well after the plane crash allows him to find a different understanding of accomplishment and the need to bear responsibility for his actions, even if his past mistakes are now public and will never be erased.  Denzel Washington is a masterful actor (unlike Lovitz’s mediocre Thespian) who delivers one of his career’s finest on-screen characterizations.  You should not miss this Flight, even if you have to run to the departure gate (or, as we say in the entertainment business, the theatre door) in order to catch it.

            However, just because I’m praising Denzel to the skies (so to speak) doesn’t mean I don’t have equal respect for the magnificent acting abilities on display in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, with John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien and Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen Greene in as fine a tribute to the human spirit as I’ve even seen regarding this fictionalized but essentially true account of how a Berkeley, CA poet and journalist who had lived most of his life into his later 30 years in an iron lung was determined to not die a virgin, despite everything that his body and his Catholic Church upbringing would have previously led him to believe.  He gets the church’s blessing easily enough to have sex outside the bounds of marriage from sympathetic, sincerely-interested Father Brendan (Bill Macy), but overcoming his body’s resistance—or lack of cooperation is more like it, because he’s not so much paralyzed as just left without muscle control from the many decades of polio so that he can’t voluntarily move anything below his neck including his lungs for more than a few hours outside of his assisted breathing device (involuntary movement is another matter, but we’ll get to that)—is what this film is all about, as we gradually see how Mark is able to allow his physical existence, and more importantly his personhood, to connect fully and willingly with another human being in a manner that he could only have hypothesized or dreamed about before entering into sexual therapy.  However, therapy implies cognitive refocusing—a part of Mark’s needs, but only a part—when what he’s really desiring is the extension of therapy into the strange world of actual sexual encounter so rather than the crass option of a prostitute who might help him achieve orgasm for a price (and forfeit his religion’s blessings) he’s referred to a sex surrogate whose “profession is” not really “her religion,” nor is “her sin her lifelessness” (to borrow a bit from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” [from the marvelous 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album; take a listen to this version at if you’d like another musical interlude from these comments on strenuously serious films sparked with superior acting) because she’s just trying to help struggling souls like Mark find a sense of human identity, while her real “sin,” at least according to Father Brendan and her rather distanced husband, Josh (Adam Arkin), is that her job begins to bleed into real emotions for her clients, especially Mark who confuses his learned intimacy for passion (just as he did for one of his attendants, Amanda [Annika Marks], which causes her to leave in a sense of confusion and embarrassment, although later she almost seems to return to him but only to acknowledge that she just doesn’t know how to love him before she leaves for a different life entirely in Germany), leading him to write a tender poem for Cheryl that Josh receives in the mail, opening and reading it in a violation of her privacy, leading to fierce tension between husband and wife which I would imagine is always just beneath the surface in a situation like this where a spouse tries to understand that his life partner is just doing her job, even when that job is to encourage a stranger to insert his genital into the wife for pleasurable intercourse yet none of this is considered extramarital sex, let alone prostitution.  The client’s genital isn’t the only thing that’s hard in this type of encounter.

            Certainly Father Brendan doesn’t see it as prostitution, although in his honest attempts to counsel and encourage Mark we can see a bit of vicarious sensual experience as Mark doesn’t so much confess sexual sins but seeks out his confessor’s dialogue as a sympathetic but somewhat overwhelmed priest-turned-counselor-and-involuntary coach to keep trying to control himself as his penis gets into overdrive before Cheryl is barely ready for contact.  Eventually (although it must be more quickly than the scenes seem because they’re only scheduled for 6 sessions but even that number is cut short after they first achieve a controlled orgasm for him and then a “come together” moment [given my diversions into musical interludes in this review I can’t resist steering you to The Beatles’ version of that tune at if you’d like a listen] that causes her to suggest they terminate their connections even before the 6 sessions are done because she’s aware that they’re both getting too close to romance, even though that’s not necessarily what she wants from him—but it’s not something that she rejects either, due to her connection to Mark’s soulful existence and his attentiveness to her that her loving but distracted husband has started to drift away from too much, too often) Cheryl finds tactics that enable her client to control one segment of his lower body in ways unavailable to his limbs, which gives him a sense of existence he’s never known before, allowing him to feel passion that complements the humor and determination to find something meaningful in his distressed, confined life that until now has been more about ignoring than understanding who he is as a whole person.  Ultimately Cheryl helps Mark understand that he’s not to blame for the polio that ravaged him as a child nor is it really his fault that his younger sister died in an accident because his mother was paying too much attention to him in his weakened state.  The guilt (an easy aspect of Catholicism for anyone, as I speak from experience) has consumed him all his life, even if it was unearned, just as his physical condition was a random situation, but to help release him from the self-imposed aspects of his ongoing penance it took someone who was willing to help him push aside his fears of physical as well as emotional inadequacy, allowing him to find new levels of acceptance of himself as well as an actual girlfriend, Susan (Robin Weigert), a hospital volunteer, who’s with him for another 5 years before the sad closure brought about by his inevitable death. 

            The Sessions is a heartbreaker as well as an inspiring testimony to the resilience of human determination when both personal desire and external encouragement are available for us, no matter how much of a challenge we’ve been given by the circumstances of our life situation (all of which was also explored in Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 short documentary, Breathing Lessons, which chronicled O’Brien’s life prior to his death in 1999 at age 49 after living a life much longer than expected, determined that his presence on the planet was to be useful).  As with Washington’s lead role in Flight, the acting by both Hawkes and Hunt in this film is stupendous, with him confined to a prone position moving only his head and her bravely, easily baring her body for all to see, not in an erotic manner as Mark imagined Amanda as a pole dancer but in a sincere, openness to connect physically with a man who hardly had any sense of any aspect of his body except the wit of his brain.  It’s a sad, beautiful, liberating film to watch that may well generate more Oscar attention about the tragically wonderful life of Mark O’Brien.

            As an aside, another marvelous media experience that I’ve had access to that resonates with these cinematic tales of personal difficulties brought on by overwhelming, imposed circumstances, then acted to a superb level for audience appreciation is the San Francisco American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) production of Sophocles’ timeless Elektra, with the title character here on the left played in devastating fashion by René Augesen, the Chorus Leader in the center done marvelously by Olympia (how fitting) Dukakis, and Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis embodied by Allegra Rose Edwards.  For those of you in the San Francisco area I encourage you to quickly seek out this powerfully concise play while it’s still available and can only hope that others would get a chance to see a similarly impactful production of such family tragedy, grief, and struggle over higher moral circumstances as to whether it’s more sanctioned by all that we call holy (gods, spiritual beings of revenge, or principles, take your pick) to accept the murder of your father by your mother because he sacrificed your sister to the deities for military purposes or to encourage her death because of the indefensible dishonor she’s brought to the family through her own murderous ways in order to preserve the affair with her lover (more details if you like on the original myth at  I have no idea if such  a fine production of this ancient masterpiece might be available in your area, but if it is I highly encourage your attendance because it resonates so well with the elaboration of human failure as shown by Whip Whitaker’s character in Flight and the determination to overcome imposed tragedy in The Sessions.  Further, if you should live close enough to downtown San Francisco to attend a performance of this version of Elektra, you’ll find not only a moral or personal dilemma as presented in Flight and The Sessions, but you’ll also see elevated acting, especially with Augesen as Elektra, tormented for years by her father’s grotesque, Hamlet-esque death by a killer in league with the once-and-future queen, that lays raw the human condition of anguishing over uninvited tragedy, as forces beyond our comprehension command the yet-uncharted path of our lives, as foretold in ominous,oracular fashion by the young cancer victim giving a potent warning to Whip in Flight and embodied in a more bouyant manner by O’Brien’s sexual triumph in The Sessions.

            However, even though we’re given inspiration that with determination and fortitude our lives are not so otherwise-determined as shown by Mark O’Brien’s realization of aspects of himself that had never surfaced before as he learns to connect on both a physical and spiritual plane with his sex surrogate, we see that with gains can come further difficulties as he loses perspective on what level of genuine empathy he’s supposed to share with Cheryl, just as Elektra (and her more active brother, Orestes [Nick Stern]), struggle with the difficult moral questions of avenging regicide even if that means committing the parallel sin of matricide, an exploration tackled head-on by Sophocles’ mentor, Aeschylus, in his Oresteia trilogy in which the mother killing is finally sanctioned within the larger context of the motivation for the deed (you can find some details at, although in the SF A.C.T. Sophocles’ version we’re focused more on inner turmoil and a desperate need for liberation, as with the two films under review here.  All in all, though, despite the moral and situational considerations being called into question and the tragedies to be endured in Flight and Elektra, we can still find hope in the difficult—almost impossible—life given purpose and closure in the soul-liberating personal growth explored in The Sessions.

            When you take all of these mass media (or at least large audience) experiences into consideration you’re right back where we started with Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright” becoming ever more significant in retrospect regarding all that’s explored in this review about possibilities and failure in many cases to achieve them (although Mark O’Brien refused to be daunted by failure, no matter how intense).  You can experience Woodstock phenomenon Joe for yourself (Oh, that’s right, you may not even know what Woodstock is, you young punks; well, that’s your problem but you can check out info on that historically significant festival/cultural phenomenon at if you want to hear him belt out Flight's recurring theme at and you can see why his tune both pops ups as a good bit in that film as well as serves as a proper metaphor for much of what we’re exploring in this review when we close out these comments with the second verse and the repeated chorus of Mr. Cocker’s lament to a situation gone bad, which would echo all that we would see in the works above and give us pause as to how we would attempt to transcend the confines put upon these characters if they were us:

"Boy you sure took me for one big ride
Even now I sit and wonder why
And when I think of you I stop myself from cryin'
I just can't waste my time I must get by
Got to stop believin' in all your lies
Cause there's too much to do before I die.

Feelin' alright,  [seemingly a question to a listener, an indication that the singer isn’t so great at this point in his life and wonders if anyone else is either]
Not feelin' too good myself,
Oh no, Feelin' alright,
Not feelin' that good myself …”

But, if you’re not confined to misery, by being aware of how difficult it is for the fictional parallels of our own lives to transcend their tragedies as explored in the films and play above, and can allow yourself to celebrate moments of triumph, let me step out of the film review sphere for a moment and laud something from the real world.

            While the second Presidential term of Barack Obama has nothing to do with what has gone before in this review it’s the most compelling event in my life for quite some time (except for every day spent with my wonderful wife, Nina, the epitome of compassion and delight) so I just wanted to acknowledge the election victory with a completely partisan notice in hope that the next 4 years will be ones of prosperity and growth, unlike with the imposed or organic limits that hindered the characters of the cited media products above in the soaring Flight, the marginally liberating The Sessions, and the mourning that defines Elektra.  May we indeed grow into better days.

            If you’d like to take Flight further here are some suggested links: (12 min. interview with actors Denzel Washington and John Goodman, director Robert Zemeckis by a very enthusiastic, somewhat pandering interviewer from Houston)

            If you want to sign up for more of The Sessions here are some suggested links: (short interview with director-writer Ben Lewin at Sundance when the film was called The Surrogate)

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