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« LFF: Wadjda, A Miracle Debut | Main | Podcast: Lincoln, Pitch Perfect, and the Supporting Actress Oscar »

NYFF: "Flight" & Denzel's Forthcoming 6th Oscar Nom

Michael C here having safely landed at the closing night of the New York Film Festival.

Nobody could have landed that plane like I did.”

That’s the mantra the Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker repeats throughout Robert Zemeckis’ Flight to absolve himself of any guilt. He has a strong case to make. Nobody can deny that all ninety-six passengers on his plane would be dead were it not for his brilliant unorthodox piloting after the plane dropped into an uncontrolled dive without warning. But how does that heroism hold up when evidence begins to surface that Whitaker was not only several sheets to the wind that morning but also blasted on coke? Can he be both a national hero and a national disgrace? Does the former negate the latter? Would he have even attempted anything so crazy were he cold sober?

Understandably, Flight’s ad campaign focuses on the breathtaking crash material and on that score Zemeckis doesn’t disappoint. He delivers the most thrilling action sequence since the Dubai Tower scene in last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. What mass audiences may be surprised to discover is that the spectacle is only the opening act, the catalyst for a bruising character study. And despite some hiccups along the way it is an effective one. I don’t know screenwriter John Gatnis’s personal history but he has the addiction material down cold.

He's already got two but is a third on the way?I do not speak lightly when I say that this is one of Denzel Washington’s best performances. He elevates the material at every turn with a riveting, nuanced turn that is not the least bit concerned with whether or not we like this guy. Mostly we don't. There is a scene that should lock up Denzel’s sixth Oscar nod (and possibly his third win) where he mercilessly manipulates an attendant from the doomed flight into perjuring herself for his sake. I was going to write that his actions in the scene are shameless but actually it’s the opposite. The look on Whitaker’s eyes suggests the shame is eating him alive. 

Of course the other big headline here is that Flight marks Robert Zemekis’s first live action movie after a twelve-year stint as the premiere director of motion capture films for which the public was not clamoring. Surprisingly, his time away on the Island of Mocap Toys has actually appeared to increase his skill with small-scale human drama. It is tough to recall any dramatic moments from his previous films as powerful as the best moments in Flight. Maybe all those hours spent watching actors in lycra suits emote at ping pong balls on sticks left him hungry for the simple elegance of actors acting on a real live set. 

I would love to report that at all of Flight were as good as its best moments, but the film can't keep out of its own way. The screenplay saddles itself with a creaky subplot involving Whitaker’s relationship with a recovering addict he meets at the hospital (Kelly Reilly, fine in an ill-conceived part) so we can touch on a lot addiction cliches that were not going missed. The film would veer into melodrama more than once were it not for Washington's skill and restraint. On top of this a layer of clunky religious symbolism is piled on with all the subtlety of the plane crash sequence, literally so when the wing of the plane shears the steeple off a church on the way down. It’s almost as the filmmakers were worried they were being too smart for too long, and threw in some broad, obvious strokes so as not to leave the slower viewers behind. There is especially apparent in Flight's reliance on cringingly on-the-nose music cues throughout: John Goodman’s smarmy drug pusher is accompanied by “Sympathy for the Devil”, Washington pours booze down the sink to “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and so on. 

So Flight squanders some its impact with a few hamfisted moves. That is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Denzel's performance alone justifies a trip to the theater, and when you factor in the tiptop supporting cast, the thrilling crash sequence and story that rings true whenever it can find its groove and you’ve got what amounts to a compelling mixed bag. Just don’t expect smooth flying the whole way through. B-

Amour & No Two Strong Foreign Oscar Contenders
Holy Motors Must See Madhouse
Lincoln's Noisy "Secret" Debut
The Bay An Eco Conscious Slither
The Paperboy & the Power of Nicole Kidman's Crotch 
Room 237 The Cult of The Shining's Overlook Hotel  
Bwakaw is a Film Festival's Best Friend
Frances Ha, Dazzling Brooklyn Snapshot
Barbara Cold War Slow Burn
Our Children's Death March 
Hyde Park on Hudson Historical Fluff

Double Oscar Winners Denzel & More

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Reader Comments (19)

Can't wait to see it next week, I love Denzel Wasjington.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPROUDOM

2012 seems like The Return of the Titans, doesn't it?

Daniel Day Lewis
Anthony Hopkins
and now Sir Denzel Washington, who is just a fascinating screen presence.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

^ Don't forget Robert DeNiro!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

If he wins, he'll tie the record shared by Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. So cool.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

[6] Denzel Washington: (2012)(2001) Actor;
(1989) Supporting Actor

[5] Daniel Day-Lewis: (2012)(2007)(1989) Actor

Semicolon 3's—

[17] Meryl Streep: (2011)(1982) Actress;
(1979) Supporting Actress
[12] Jack Nicholson: (1997)(1975) Actor;
(1983) Supporting Actor
[7] Ingrid Bergman: (1956)(1944) Actress;
(1974) Supporting Actress

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

I'd say that the return of Denzel Washington is a bigger deal than DDL, since the latter never acted frequently anyway, and got his second Oscar four years ago anyway. But Denzel Washington hasn't been nominated since 2002! And at a relatively prime age for actors, too.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

This actually should be Denzel's seventh nom, since most buffs agree that he was snubbed for The Hurricane.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I'm kind of glad to see the heavyweights returning to the fold. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Tommy Lee Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, etc. It feels like old times! Hope they're worth the hype of course, but I think I'm most thrilled for Denzel, since he's been on autopilot for a stretch of years now (except his Tony-winning role in "Fences"). And Denzel was nodded for "The Hurricane" at least, but he lost to Kevin Spacey for "American Beauty" *yuck*.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRenly

i was underwhelmed by this movie.... felt somehow there should've been more to the story. and the ending coda was just ridiculous.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Murtada - You're not wrong about that coda. The last two lines made me wince.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Aw I was sad that you and Nathaniel didn't seem to get to a screening of Miguel Gomes' Berlinale sensation TABU.

Like Guy Lodge's, I'd love to hear your reviews on it.

That aside... Thanks Michael (and Nathaniel) for a very thorough coverage of NYFF.

I'm especially curious to watch Denzel do his thing here again, since I like his star persona very much and I haven't been a fan of his latest string of movies (he's been basically collecting those paychecks, I was starting to think his acting muscle was wearing off).

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

This review kinda got me more excited for the movie, honestly. If you say those highs are fantastic and Denzel is selling it throughout, I think I might just go and buy a ticket considering I've been waiting to see a live-action Zemekis for a while now and this story is definitely intriguing, on top of all that. The trailer did its job well enough too and I always love a good survival story a la Fearless, Lost and Zemekis' own Cast Away.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Mark the First - Right on. Definitely deserves to be seen, weaknesses and all.

Jorge - So much that I missed that I wanted to see. Would have loved to simply attend every screening. TABU is definitely on my list to catch up with.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I am definitely excited about this movie, Denzel is one of the all-time best.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Michael C. - Definitely will now, thanks.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

How was Don Cheadle? I love me some Cheadle, but he's usually either brilliant or horrible in a role.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

and the oscar goes to....

i love my life.

denzel washington!!!!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjulia

Cheadle is good here, but so he can only do so much since it is a somewhat limited role.

This is another reason the subplot with Kelly Reilly annoyed me. I wanted more time to explore the dynamic with the more interesting supporting characters played by Cheadle, Goodman, etc.

October 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

I was merely interested based on the trailer alone, but after this glowing endorsement of Washington's performance I am beyond excited.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.
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