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Monday
Nov052012

Review: "Flight"

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad

Captain Whip

No one can fly a plane like Captain Whip (Denzel Washington). Unfortunately no one can drink like him either. Within the first fifteen or so minutes of Flight, the new drama from Robert Zemeckis, Whip has already downed multiple vodkas, beers, and at least one line of coke. He's high before lift-off; this bender is all on the morning he's piloting 104 souls on a commercial aircraft to Atlanta.

Whip gives drunk driving a whole new vertical meaning.

Captain Whip's flight is, unfortunately, doomed. The unusual crash is very well shot and edited -- a real armrest grabber and apparently it is possible to fly a plane inverted! In the aftermath Whip, his co-workers, multiple lawyers and moneyed executives are engaged in the very tense and very high-stakes legal battle as to the why the plane went down.

"Why?" is an open ended question so let's ask a more specific one...

Q: Will Denzel win his sixth Oscar nomination?

A: YES. (That was easy)

The flight that arguably gives the film its title is over well before the movie is but the showy physical disaster is only the layover. The flight's final destination/disaster is emotional. The title might well refer to this instead, booze and drugs being a popular method of escape.

Whip is trouble and not just for himself. He manipulates, challenges and confuses everyone in his circle, a recovering addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), his lawyer (Don Cheadle), his union rep (Bruce Greenwood), his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty), and his friend and dealer (John Goodman in a crowd-pleasing turn that might have Oscar dreams of its own). All of these relationships and confrontations give Denzel plenty of room to fill in a superb characterization of an arrogant man and the maddening selfishness of addiction. Alcoholism is a tough subject to convey without stepping in piles of cliché -- it's hardly unfamiliar terrain for the movies. But even when Flight underlines a moment too boldly or presents it too simplistically, as in the epilogue, it will still ring true to those who've spent any time with alcoholic loved-ones.

Director Robert Zemeckis has been away from live action cinema for over a decade now after pulling double duty in 2000 (Castaway, What Lies Beneath). He spent the last decade obsessing over motion capture animated features and Flight often has a self-conscious naughtiness to it as if Zemeckis is overcompensating for his family friendly filmography. The very first scene earns Flight its R rating for nudity and drug use and he doesn't stop there. He gives more time to Kelly's backstory ('ooh, look a porn set!') and grabby tonally-questionable moments ('ha-ha, 'Jesus freaks!,' 'omg, it's Denzel's ass') than seem remotely necessary for the story Flight is telling.

Thankfully Zemeckis's decade away from live action filmmaking has not dulled his instincts with movie stars. His filmography is chalk full of magnetic star turns from Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone (1984) all the way through to Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000). Flight is no exception. No one can fly a plane like Captain Whip and only a precious few movie stars can lift-off and keep a movie soaring as well as Denzel Washington.

Grade: B-
Oscar Dreams: Even in the hotly competitive Best Actor race, my gut tells me you'd be crazy to bet against a Denzel nomination. The question is whether his star turn will have any coattails for John Goodman, editing, or the script.

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Reader Comments (20)

Great review. I agree with you on pretty much all counts except John Goodman. I actually found that performance supremely irritating and hammy. But the film is compelling, even if it too often feels like it could have used a touch more subtlety. (Especially in the "Praise Jesus" scene. What the hell was that?) I did like the stairwell scene with James Badge Dale a lot, though, even with its slight heavy-handedness.

I will say that of the two alcoholism movies I've seen this year (this one and "Smashed"), "Flight" is the superior one.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

*Spoilers ahead*

Liz N. -- I think the 'praise Jesus' scene was just one instance of the films commentary on the belief of God, or lack thereof. For example, Denzel's character takes it personal when told that God landed that plane, and not him. Or when at the crash site he thinks aloud and says, "what kind of God would allow this?" And of course nothing was more symbolic than the plane taking down a part of a church right before it crashed. So I was disappointed in his character thanking God in the movies penultimate scene; there was no indication in any part of the movie that he took religion seriously so the sudden 180 seemed forced and tacky.

Everything up to that part was great though, especially the performances of everyone involved, I was really impressed. And I disagree with your comment about John Goodman's performance, he really provided levity when it was needed, a nice change of pace from an otherwise "serious" film.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Liz & MDA -- i'm somewhere in the middle on Goodman in this particular picture though I often love him. I wasn't really providing my own commentary there with that "audience pleasing"... but commentary on the audience i saw it with :)

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

How would you rank this particular performance in Denzel's career?

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Something tells me kelly reilly is getting in the supporting category.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

Nathaniel: Ditto everything you say regarding the movie itself and Washington's performance. Usually, when I love his work, that affection manifests itself immediately, but with "Flight" I had to really ruminate before coming to a final conclusion. It had to rest with me for a while, and the more I thought about it the more indelible it became.

Liz N.: Ditto what you said about John Goodman. I'm typically apathetic towards him, but his antics in this film were far too much for me to bear.

Mark: Ditto what you said about Kelly Reilly. I could see that happening a la Maggie Gyllenhaal's "Crazy Horse" nod, though I can't say I wholeheartedly bough that storyline or loved the performance, as sympathetic as it may be.

The million-dollar question is: Can "Flight" net him a third Oscar?

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

MDA--I see what you mean. It's not really the inclusion of the scene that bothered me so much. After all, it's hardly unusual to see people turn to religion after some kind of near-death experience. But the scene just felt so tonally off, especially the wife's wide-eyed, robotic "Praise Jesus" refrain. People in my theater started to laugh, and I wasn't sure that was the reaction Zemeckis was going for. And yes, Whip's "conversion" at the end seemed awfully forced and trite.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

Does the LEOgend get to do much?

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill

Will -- sadly no. But it's not quite as thankless a role as Toni Collette gets in Hitchcock.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Good review Nathaniel. Even though he won’t win, Denzel definitely deserves an Oscar nomination because he is just great here and keeps this flick ticking, just when it seems to fall on it’s own, two feet from conventionality.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan O.

I had the same reaction as you, except I thought John Goodman was terrible. I don't think he'll get a nomination what with only having 2.5 scenes but stranger things have happened. For every great moments the film has (the crash), there is a terrible, overwrought scene like the stairwell conversation between a pilot, a drug addict, and a cancer patient. That really should be a set-up to a joke.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I thought Kelly Reilly was sensational . never have seen her, but I would nominate that performance...

I am not a Washington fan, but he deserves all the kudos he is getting

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

FYC: Best Supporting Actor: James Badge Dale as the cancer patient in the stairwell.

For one of those Beatrice Straight (Network) mini-role huge impact performances.

Listening to the AwardsDaily podcast, I was so happy I wasn't the only one wowed by his performance.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRene

Terrific review, Nathan. I'm going to see this movie this weekend, and I can't wait, even though I'm not a fan of Zemeckis.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Loved "Flight" and might see it again in theaters before it leaves. It's that good to me, and Denzel hasn't been this good in YEARS. Crazy what you think he could have been doing in all of these years of those Tony Scott films. Anyway, yes to Denzel's next nod, possible nods for John Goodman, John Gatins's script, direction for Robert Zemeckis (though behind many others), maybe a coattail nod for Leogend??? LOL. Great film. Even Kelly Reilly grew on me by the end. I'd love to see a surprise nod for James Badge Dale! Love it!

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterReynolds

Along with LINCOLN, this is the other likely Oscar nominee I am not looking forward to this season. Not enough actresses!

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I think John Goodman is in for either this or "Argo." One performance propels the other one for the nomination. Add to his overall goodwill for being such a utility player all of these years in film and television, appearing in last year's BP winner "The Artist," and he'll always be Dan Conner to most of the world, which still means something to a lot of people. I think he's firmly in. And I thought that "Flight" was great too. Denzel hasn't been this good in forever. But I swear if Kelly Reilly Maggie Gyllenhaal's her way to an Oscar nod, I'm gonna need to see some receipts on that one.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

I don't think there is a complete character there for Kelly Reilly to portray. Why didn't we see her get interviewed for that grocery store job? Or her speak in front of one of those AA meetings? Or more of her relationship with Washington develop?

Anyway, from the first few moments she started speaking, her American accent was all over the place.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRene

Steve G -- That's a problem with so many films! (although I liked the stewardesses in this movie)

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I am grateful to alll of those involved in the making of the film Flight for the love and courage
it took to reveal to us the d e c e i t f u l , arrogant, self-destructive, p r e d a t o r i a l, filthy,
n o n f a m i l i a l, GODLESS, yet hopeful sides of a d d i c t i o n. No matter how lost one be-
comes, there is always H O P E. I am the very proud adult daughter of a recovered alco-
holic. Watching this movie caused me to experience many of the negative emotions I strug

gled with growing up with an alcoholic parent. Addiction deletes peace, a gift from birth. J11/2012

December 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoles

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