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.
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