The New York Film Festival has chosen to acknowledge the landmark moment of its 50th year with paragons of the medium, none more pronounced than its closing-night selection. Robert Zemeckis hasn't made a live-action feature since 2000's "Cast Away," which makes it appropriate that his return to the form, "Flight," also involves a plane crash and grand themes of regret and reconciliation centered around a dedicated lead performance. Now he has made another Hollywood spectacle, this one far sturdier.
"Flight" soars above "Cast Away" with a more fully realized calibration of suspense, entertainment value and emotional payoff. Slickly paced and carried by mature performances, "Flight" embodies one of the finer strains of Hollywood filmmaking in recent years. In a larger sense, it figures into a portrait of global cinema that has felt especially complete at this year's NYFF.
Beyond its impressive special effects (a touchstone of Zemeckis' career), "Flight" foregrounds movie stars in firm control of their material, particularly its leading man: Denzel Washington delivers one of his most astute roles in years as Captain Whip Whitaker, the alcoholic pilot of a doomed plane who manages to land it in a spectacular feat before dealing with the investigation into his culpability. Zemeckis' tight direction jives nicely with John Gatis' long-admired screenplay, resulting in a stylishly engaging character study with bold stabs at big ideas.
The last five words of the previous sentence could equally apply to Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which opened the 50th edition of the New York Film Festival. "Flight" closes it with another overtly spiritual movie about men in search of meaning behind the cruelties afflicted upon them. Both "Life of Pi" and "Flight" directly invoke religion, a distinguishing aspect that may testify to their commercial viability as well as the foolhardy ingredients of the classic redemption story.
But where "Life of Pi" celebrates the possibilities of faith in a higher authority, "Flight" sublimates its dogma into a shrewd narrative about surviving addiction and coming to grips with the imperfections of human behavior. As a studio product, "Flight" broadly emphasizes concepts with noticeable currency in contemporary culture and visible throughout this year's program.
In the span of less than a month, NYFF has unveiled a wide variety of international cinema, but nearly all of it has been haunted by death. The specter of colonialism hangs over the Portuguese films "Tabu" and "The Last Time I Saw Macao," where characters both real and imaginary face untimely deaths. The French-Algerian war casts a shadow on the young revolutionaries of Olivier Assayas' "Something in the Air," while the Civil War imbues each scene in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" with a grim atmosphere. Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" includes more than one solemn death scene as well as an abstract form of wonder for the fragility of life, while "Leviathan" assumes the perspective of dead fish.
Despite such dour connective tissue, each finds a source of catharsis in the power of movies to explore this timeless inevitability. In a world still recovering from global financial collapse, crippled by ferociously partisan ideologies and murky predictions about our future prospects, the pervasively dour temperament makes sense. Even the expensive studio movies acknowledge as much while striking a tentatively positive note.
In "Flight," Whip deals with his role in an incident that killed six people and constantly tries to bury his guilt. "Whose god would do this?" asks Washington's character as he spends most of the running time trying to evade responsibility for his actions. These include the lines of coke he does before his ill-fated flight and the homemade mimosa he cooks up during it. In between those moments, he navigates choppy weather with ease, establishing the no-nonsense piloting skills that enable him to land the damaged aircraft in a field through a near-miraculous moment of acrobatic versatility.
Using mainly close-ups and a somersaulting camera, Zemeckis constructs as tense a crash sequence as the big screen has ever displayed. Frontloaded with the power of this brilliantly suspenseful moment, "Flight" speeds into a prolonged story of its fallout: While hiding from the public eye, Whip deals with inquiries into his private life while forming a relationship with alienated junkie he meets at the Atlanta hospital where he recovers from the crash. Their ensuing drama has a tacked-on quality that never fully syncs with the rest of the material, although it's among several ingredients used to expand on Whip's alcohol problems and the perilous hubris involved in his ongoing attempts to disguise them.
As the institutional interest in his life heats up, Whip gets increasingly candid with the muted lawyer (Don Cheadle) tasked with keeping him out of jail; John Goodman surfaces in a couple of scenes as a hilarious fixer able to keep Whip comfortably shrouded from media scrutiny. Gatis' sharp screenplay nimbly juggles these various characters by foregrounding Whip's undulating problems with addiction. Zemeckis moves the proceedings along by relying on calculated music cues ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (as well as recurring use of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," the de facto theme song) in addition to Washington's evident commitment to the material.
The movie is notably not about the crash but rather the transformative power of a single cataclysmic event. For obvious reasons, "Flight" has post-9/11 demons in its DNA, but reflects the temperament of the current era to make peace with darkness and soldier forward to a better tomorrow. That's an undeniably cheeky takeaway rendered in somewhat distractingly obvious terms with an overly familiar tell-all monologue in its concluding moments. But there's nevertheless a welcome form of comfort that can be derived from its blatant sentimentalism. Viewed in the context of the festival, "Flight" epitomizes a dogged willingness to convey hope for the future while acknowledging the possibility of more dark days ahead. It's a good way to go out.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount opens "Flight" on November 2, right in the heat of Oscar season, where it's a definitive candidate for several major prizes — particularly for Washington's performance and Gatis' screenplay. It should satisfy audiences in search of top-caliber studio fare during the fall season and perform decently during its initial weeks of release.