REVIEW: 'Flight' Soars Then Nosedives Despite Denzel Washington's Acting Aerobatics
Flight, the first non-motion-capture feature Cast Away and Forrest Gump filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has directed in over a decade, is the kind of movie that, people like to bemoan, the industry doesn't make anymore. It's a solid, burnished work made about adults for adults and anchored by Denzel Washington in a role that calls for some classic star gravitas. It's a mainstream film, but a consciously meaningful one, occupying that increasingly perilous mid-budget middle ground in a world continually drifting toward the opposing poles of massive blockbusters and scrappy indies. There's not a superhero in sight and not a trace of nuance either — it's the straightforward drama of a man forced by circumstances out of his control to confront the destructive way he's been living his life.
That Flight turns out to be a disappointingly standard addiction story in its second half also serves as a reminder that Hollywood tends to be more invested in these types of self-serious movies than most actual audiences. In its need to reach a smug, by-the-book end goal of redemption and recovery, the film sheds much of the life and complexity it shows in the beginning, devolving from a morally ambiguous story to a story all about its moral.
Based on a screenplay by John Gatins (Real Steel), Flight's opening sequences are a dazzling display of studio filmmaking at its limber heights. The camera follows Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) out of a night-long bender and through the start of what should be a quick, routine Orlando to Atlanta flight. Halfway through, however, the plane malfunctions and things go wrong with terrifying rapidity. In the wake of the crash, friends and family mourn the lost while the press and public clamor for someone to blame, and we learn that Whip may be a great pilot — he's his best self in the air — but he's also a functional alcoholic in deep denial.
It's not Whip's fault the plane starts to go down, but when it does he proves himself capable of grace under pressure in a situation the film portrays through some hair-curling images: people flipped and scrabbling around the ceiling of the plane's fuselage, tearful panic, plummeting altimeters, flaming engines and the ground rushing up at an angle one never wants to see in real life. The dreamlike way in which Whip watches the wing of his plane take out a church spire in the seconds before impact, like a later shot in which a bloody tear trickles out of his damaged eye as he recovers in the hospital, presents a sliver of lyricism to the sequence and its stunned aftermath, in which Whip isn't sure whether he's a hero or a failure.
Flight is so sensorially sharp and electrically present in its initial gambit that the movie's descent into a trudging tale of a problem drinker in the second half brings the film to ground literally and symbolically. Washington turns in a smart, ego-free performance here that goes some way toward making Whip into a character whose fate we might care about. He's a man who's been ignoring his issues for so long we don't at first grasp the depths of them ourselves — but his later cycle of self-abuse feels as familiar and repetitive as the flight scene itself feels fresh.
Watching Whip sober himself up with some blow after a boozy dalliance with a flight attendant before traveling to the cockpit, we get the squirmy, tightrope-act sensation of observing someone disturbingly good at getting by while hammered. He's experienced enough as a pilot and drinker to take off smashed and thread his plane through tricky, stormy weather. Watching him tempt fate again and again as he is investigated in te aftermath of the crash is far less compelling. Whip is looking for someone or something to force him to stop, and apparently a brush with death while transporting more than 100 people in his care isn't enough.
Characters invested in Whip not being held responsible for the accident, for professional reasons or friendship — including Don Cheadle as his attorney, Bruce Greenwood as his union representative, Tamara Tunie as a flight attendant colleague and an amusing John Goodman as his drug dealer — try to protect him, but Whip doesn't seem that committed to protecting himself.
The forced spirituality of the film, which attaches a lot of meaning to the phrase "act of God," is revealed in the weight it gives to the coincidences that trigger behavior. A smack addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who eventually befriends Whip, reneges on her promise not to inject drugs after knocking the box containing her works onto the floor. Whip himself has temptation thrown in his face at the worst possible moment thanks to a neighboring door not being locked.
Washington does find interesting sides to and knotty conflicts in Whip. His charisma, charm and competence don't quite cover up a sharp and sometimes frightening edge, and it's painful to watch the way he drinks, like it's his duty to finish up all the alcohol in sight long after he's stopped enjoying it. But the film isn't as willing to push the character as much as the actor playing him, and the lack of mystery attached to whether Whip could be even partially at fault for what happened is ultimately as contrived as the big finish, which gives his character an unearned and unnecessary nobility. In the context of the film, the crash becomes the biggest and most distasteful act of god of them all, an elaborate, bloody way to get a guy to an AA meeting.
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