After 12 years immersed (lost?) in the world of motion-capture, Robert Zemeckis re-emerges into live-action filmmaking for “Flight,” an engaging and initially very promising drama about alcoholism, redemption and forgiveness that grows uneven and long-winded as it progresses, eventually clocking in at just under 2 hours and 20 minutes. Featuring a thrilling, terrifying opening, plus many of the potent, moving elements that a conventional but admirable morality drama might boast, “Flight” is often undone by its very unsubtle choices and its problematic, strained last act.
In a mostly solid, mannered performance (though certainly not his finest to date) that will likely enter the actor in the Oscar race, Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a former Navy pilot turned commercial airline navigator who is also a raging alcoholic (not that he’s even close to acknowledging this). Arrogant and cocky, yet charismatic, Whip and his flight attendant Trina (Nadine Velazquez) party like Olympians the night before an early flight, engaging in a hedonistic marathon of sex and booze before partaking in a little cocaine the morning before a 9 AM flight to “even out” the aftereffects of drinking.
Tired, hung over and bleary eyed, the Captain prepares to fly in portentously pounding rains from Orlando to Atlanta. His co-pilot, the devout Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), is visibly concerned about the rough state of his Captain, but continues nonetheless. And the 102 passengers aboard the plane are unaware that the Captain consumes two mini-liqueur bottles of on-board vodka before they depart just for good measure.
At take-off the plane climbs into the skies, pelted by rain, erratic winds and dark clouds. But eventually, using his composure and experience, Whip expertly navigates through to clearer skies. But an act of god occurs, and what transpires is a harrowing nose dive that culminates in a brutal crash. But not before Whip can pull out every single trick in the book to avert what could (and should) have been a disaster that would have killed every person on board.
The booze-to-crash opening eats up about 30-40 minutes of the picture, and it is — especially as the plane prepares for take-off and hits the air — breathtaking and near pitch-perfect; an awe-inspiring master class in how to pull off a death-defying action sequence. It’s entertaining and deeply compelling to boot. Zemeckis works at the height of his powers orchestrating a terror-filled sequence that is as gripping, intense, affecting and traumatic as anything you’ll see on screen this year.
98 passengers survive as local Pentecostal churchgoers and firefighters heroically pull victims from the wreckage. Trina is killed, unstrapping herself trying to save a child, along with another flight attendant, and four passengers. Knocked unconscious and badly battered is Whip who wakes up to find himself a hero figure.
Recovering in the hospital, the deeply fallible and internally contrite Whip befriends Nicole (Kelly Reilly from the recent “Sherlock Holmes” films), a drug addict who overdosed from heroin as Whip was about to embark on his fateful flight. Their conversation is overtaken by the dying wisdom of a decaying cancer patient (James Badge Dale, fantastic in his little supporting cameo), but a connection is soon forged. But knowing the circumstances of the flight — even though all signs point to an impossible to correct mechanical failure — Whip lies low from the media and hides out in his father’s old house.
However, making matters worse for Whip is the toxicology report that eventually surfaces, pointing to Whip’s indiscretions, that could lead to damning federal charges if his crafty criminal negligence lawyer (Don Cheadle) and Airline Union Rep (Bruce Greenwood) can’t help him sort out a proper defense.
And from there “Flight,” when it works, eases into a restrained and grown-up drama, of the type doomsayers claim is headed towards extinction in favor of tentpoles and franchises. And for a solid hour, Zemeckis (mostly) commits to the drama, with few tricks employed aside from some egregious use of music (which we’ll get to later). And while the bulk of this traditional drama works, it does often fall prey to the heavy-handed traps of addiction dramas. Denzel tends to occasionally overact when booze-sozzled, and the picture possesses more than its share of religious themes in its motifs of salvation, redemption, atonement, etc. that are, again, anything but delicate.
With the director himself sober since the mid 1980s, “Flight” is obviously a personal statement for Zemeckis, and the clear-eyed dramatic elements of the picture are generally well-handled, but the picture’s inconsistent tone doesn’t help. Playing a kind of drug doctor mystic, John Goodman portrays an enabling old friend who swings by whenever Whip needs booze or coke and his entrances and exits (usually accompanied cranked up levels of The Rolling Stones) are broad and clunky. Meant to add some comic relief to the over-seriousness (which is occasionally strained on its own), his appearances generally mar the tenor as if he’s out of an entirely different picture.
In the music department, Zemeckis could use some serious assistance. Not only does it sound as if the director hasn’t listened to a second of contemporary music past 1981, but his choices are about as subtle as a jet engine roaring to life. “Under The Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is heard when recovering addict is shamefully copping, “Sweet Jane” (the narcotic version by the Cowboy Junkies) plays when Nicole shoots heroin, a “With a Little Help From My Friends” soundtracks Whip’s buddies giving him another pick-me-up, “Sympathy For The Devil” rocks out ironically after Whip recovers in the emergency room, and tunes like “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic and “Alcohol” by The Barenaked Ladies are employed on the nose as often as possible (curiously, “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton is missing when the blow gets trotted out).
Most troubling is the ham-fisted final act, that falters and devolves, from a screenwriting sense, into the disconcertingly ridiculous and then Hallmark card-like sentimenta (not the mention the fact that it strains credulity). It’s as if John Gatins‘ script cannot (nor can Zemeckis) commit to the engaging, well-acted, mostly well-crafted drama that’s come before it, and instead, tries to amplify conflict and drama by hitting rock bottom. Dramatically wise on paper, Washington’s final opus of falling off the wagon seem unearned, unfair and all too easy (and then you’re slapped with the most unsubtle shot in the history of addiction drama, to add further insult). It’s difficult to empathize with and invest in the character when he seemingly cannot come to terms with himself. While Washington’s Whip does grapple with an internal struggle that’s soaked in lies, denial, self-loathing and more (and this is where Washington shines the most, when he’s not uttering a word, but generally drowning in consequences and negotiating what maneuvers he’s got left), his final act of redemption is far too predictable (and therefore less satisfying), as every other option of salvation has been exhausted by his self-destructiveness.
Aided by its strong supporting cast (Cheadle, Greenwood and Reilly are particularly great; Melissa Leo also appears in a small role), Washington and Zemeckis are a strong made-for-each-other pair and make a convincing case for the endurance and perseverance of the adult drama. However, this character study, ultimately about the forgiveness of one’s self, is still rough around the edges with a script that veers dangerously towards the shallow at times, in gratuitous moments that are hard to ignore. Perhaps a producer acting as a tonal air-traffic controller can manage Zemeckis a little better next time and perfect what could have been a more consistent voyage. [B]