It’s been a while since Robert Zemeckis has been on the set of a life-action film. After 2000’s Cast Away, Zemeckis dedicated himself to the art of motion capture animation, a bumpy road that brought about three relatively unsuccessful films (The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol) and the shuttering of his studio. With that in mind, I think it’s only fair to give Zemeckis, the creator of such beloved films as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, the benefit of the doubt if Flight, his first foray back into the realm of live-action cinema, shows a few signs of rust. When his commercial aircraft experiences a massive mechanical malfunction, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) goes above and beyond to save the lives of his crew and passengers, taking evasive maneuvers that perhaps no other pilot could have managed. He awakens in a hospital room as a hero, having lost only six of 102 souls on board in spite of tremendously long odds and a harrowing crash landing. His story takes a turn, however, when it becomes known that Whitaker has a serious issue with alcohol and drug addiction and was in fact drunk at the time of the crash. As investigators close in on his condition and the heaping pile of lies he’s told to cover it up, Whitaker’s drinking problems reach a whole new level, alienating his only allies, heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and company lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle), and bringing himself closer and closer to a breaking point.
There are moments of sheer brilliance in Flight that reminded me of just how good Zemeckis can be when he’s on his game, especially in the early going. The man is a special effects whiz and whereas someone like Michael Bay uses effects in a, “Look how shiny!” sort of way, Zemeckis has always used his visuals to add drama, tension, and/or intensity to his films. (Example: the plane crash and subsequent struggle for shore in Cast Away.) The sequence of events that take place on the plane in Flight, which takes up about the first 20 minutes of the film, are extremely tense and very well put together. It’s both exciting and terrifying and in these moments you get to see Captain Whitaker at his very best, perhaps a look at what the man would have been without the backbreaking influence of chemical dependency. Following this opening sequence, however, the brilliant moments come along less frequently and before long I found myself getting bogged down in the narrative, lost somewhere between apathy and outright disdain for the protagonist.
Addiction is not an easy thing to portray in a film. If you go too soft, you end up with an unrealistic story that doesn’t resonate. Go too far in the other direction, however, and you’re likely to end up with a character that begins to grate on the nerves of the audience. Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter I think stands out as the prime example of how to bridge the gap between the two. That character is completely realistic down to the very last detail and yet he plays it in such a way that you truly do feel sorry for the character even when he is doing horrible things. Whip Whitaker doesn’t quite fit that bill for me. Zemeckis takes the narrative of Flight so far and does so much to show him to be a miserable human being that Whitaker becomes a wholly unsympathetic character. I guess the object of all of this would be to drag Whitaker down to his lowest point so that his redemption will seem all the more fulfilling but instead, I reached a point nearing the film’s climatic conclusion in which I said to myself, “This guy sucks and I hope he either dies or goes to jail.” At that point, there’s really no coming back; Whitaker could have gone on to find a cure for cancer in the film’s final scene and I still would have harbored some dislike for him.
As part of this process of breaking down the lead, Flight asks much of Washington while simultaneously putting him in a hole that he has a tough time digging out of. Like everyone else with a pulse, I love Denzel Washington and consider him to be one of the very best Hollywood has to offer. But whereas Flight requires a great performance in order to make the movie work, Washington’s is only a good one that holds some real strength but doesn’t measure up against the man’s better works. It is unfair to demand an Oscar-caliber performance out of anyone, even someone as accomplished as Washington is, but I think that’s the sort of portrayal Flight requires in order to hit its mark and as a result, both parts of that equation come up short. The supporting cast, including Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and American Treasure John Goodman, also struggle to excel and at times come off a bit uneven. I found only Reilly and James Badge Dale, in a short but excellent appearance, to be particularly strong performers. This is disappointing as, given the names attached to this film, Zemeckis could have done considerably more with his cast than he did.
Flight represents a good effort from all parties, though perhaps a little too far-reaching for its own good. Its better moments shine quite bright but they are too often blotted out by a hard-driving narrative and an uneven tone that struggles to strike the right chord at the right time. And in the end, I was left with the feeling that Flight could have been much better than it ended up being.
Flight Director: Robert Zemeckis Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman Rated: R (language, nudity, and “here’s how to do cocaine, kids!” extensive drug use) Recommended For: Adults with patience who get to see more than one movie a month. In other words, don’t spend your one night away from the kids on this one.