My friend, the German media scholar and trailer historian, Professor Vinzenz Hediger, recently mentioned how much he admired the trailer for Denzel Washington’s upcoming release, Flight, a fictional exploration of a flawed hero, lionized for a miraculous crash landing then vilified for flying under the influence.
That was enough of a prompt for me to watch and study the trailer and report on my encounter with a skillful feat of movie marketing.
Granted the film has much to recommend it: a stellar cast, including Melissa Leo, Don Cheadle and John Goodman; top shelf spectacle and action sequences; a healthy budget; direction by Robert Zemeckis; distribution by Paramount; and a story inspired by headlines news and tabloid journalism. The trailer uses an iconic (and expensive) music cue by the Rolling Stones (which is one small but telling indication of support for the marketing campaign) and features editing oriented more toward character and narrative complication than the compelling visual pleasures the film has to offer.
The trailer emphasizes Denzel’s frailty, age and suffering. While we assume that he triumphs over his trial by media and the FAA, the trailer focuses on his personal ordeal. The story of the film is presented thus:
Capt. Whitaker (Washington) boards his plane in the rain, receives the manifest of 102 passengers and takes off. The Paramount logo is shown. A blurry, partial view of a suspended ceiling, through bloodshot eyes follows. Whitaker awakes in a hospital bed, told by a colleague/boss (Bruce Greenwood) that he has performed heroically. We flash back to the crash event, with Greenwood in V.O. evaluating Whitaker’s miraculous piloting in bringing the plane down without loss of life. We watch Whitaker calm and direct his hysterical co-pilot in order to execute an extraordinary maneuver to slow the plane’s descent: he rolls it over and flies it upside down.
Cut to a shot of blue sky, with a thin vapor trail the only evidence of a plane’s passage. The words: “This November.” Next, a friend (John Goodman) visits Whitaker in the hospital to inform him of his new found status as a popular hero. Whitaker, walking with a cane, lunches with his boss and a lawyer (Cheadle) who explains that he is under investigation for having had alcohol in his system during the crash. He faces life in prison.
Another blue-sky and vapor trail shot, with the words “From Academy Award winning director Robert Zemeckis,” follows. Cut to Denzel, in aviator shades, staring sky-ward, a look of deep, troubled contemplation on his face. The FAA calls Whitaker to testify in a public hearing. He is hounded by reporters at home, demanding whether he has something to hide.
Another blue-sky shot, reminding the audience that Zemeckis is the director of Forest Gump and Castaway. Cut to Cheadle following Whitaker to a run-down rural retreat, where he’s greeted by Whitaker with a gun. Cheadle insists the plane malfunction was an act of God. Whitaker demurs that “no god would do this,” as we see the plane clip a church steeple on its final descent.
Next, FAA investigator (Melissa Leo) asks Whitaker about the days leading up to the crash. While survivors look upon Whitaker as a hero, the stress of inquiry into his private life and alcoholism is destroying him.
Flashback to a family fight, where he is physically pushed from the house by his son. Cut to a refrigerator full of liquor, that Whitaker proceeds to pour into the sink.
As the pressure of public investigation and personal stock-taking (and reckoning) bear down (via dialogue), we see increasingly dynamic and quick-cut footage of the crash, including hero shots of Whitaker in control, on and off the plane, to the crescendoing conclusion of Gimme Shelter. Whitaker gets the final line of dialogue: “No one could have landed that plane like I did,” as we see the plane in medium shot, flying low to the ground and upside down! It’s a surreal image and presumably the most spectacular one in the film to close out the trailer.
Now, it is a truism too obvious to be called an insight, that films and their trailers emphasize, focus on, and privilege the act, the instrument and the object of seeing. Eyes, vision, looking, watching, reacting (whether eye trace or widening) are the synechdoche (part indicating the whole) of cinematic story telling. Eyes and their activities denote seeing, looking, watching, reacting; and they connote interiority, introspection, awareness, understanding and knowledge. It would be hard to film a movie or cut a trailer without relying on the eyes of characters and their acts of seeing.
My claim, then, that this trailer privileges eyes and seeing relies on quantitative evidence rather than qualitative. The trailer editor’s choice is insistently, repeatedly, emphatically on actual eyes and on the screens, windows, lenses and frames through which the seeing, reading, understanding and reacting occurs.
From Whitaker’s entry onto his plane in the opening shot, this trailer is all about his (and other’s) eyes. At first, he’s navigating, greeting and reading as he prepares for takeoff. As a pilot, the cockpit windows are the eyes of the plane, multiplied by the interior panels, dials and monitors that augment and expand his vision.
He awakes in hospital, peering through a half-lidded, bloodshot eye [extreme closeup], a patch covering the other. He is now visually impaired. Stitches and a bandaid over his eye in later scenes remind us of the injury and draw attention to that organ and its function.
Whitaker’s confusion, hurt, fear and anger all show in his eyes, as is customary, and it’s where the editor’s cut repeatedly directs the eyes of the audience. Don Cheadle wears corrective lenses, the only lead actor to do so, presumably so he can better “see into” the case and his client, but at any rate overdetermining the emphasis on the ocular function and its instruments.
Sunglasses, which draw attention to the eyes by blocking our view of them, feature prominent on John Goodman’s bluff, confident character, who wears them indoors at the Hospital. Later, Denzel, in scenes of swagger and confidence or inscrutable staring [what i’ve described above, when he stares sky-ward], sports black-out aviator lenses. At these moments, we have to interpret behavior by body language and facial expression, since the eyes are inaccessible. This interpretive work –of an impassive face or the set of a mouth–is much harder to do and wide open to debate.
Finally, the trailer’s closing seconds include three consecutive close-up shots of eyes—with the camera pushing in—underscoring the emphasis on sight, rather than flight, as the altimeter goes to zero, before the final reveal of Denzel at the controls and the plane passing upside down.
The title “FLIGHT” appears in the clear blue sky, followed by the writer and director credit card, then “NOVEMBER 2” to close out the trailer.
The trailer tells you pretty much everything that happens in the way of story and action, while also presenting the action and spectacle of a commercial aviation disaster film that American audiences find so vicariously enjoyable. But with its insistence on the eyes of the protagonist, the trailer positions the film as a character study, hinting at depths and conflicts within this troubled, heroic man that a 2 ½ minute trailer cannot sound or adequately explore. You’ll have to see the movie.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.