From the vapid, saccharine Forrest Gump to the overwrought, improbable Flight, Robert Zemeckis has remained a master of manipulation. That Oscar for Gump? Flight’s closing night slot at this year’s New York Film Festival? Forget them and look at the films: emotionally pandering and commonplace, all dressed up in awards-ready fancy clothes.
The secret behind Zemeckis’ outside success is easy to spot, though: he knows how to tell a story and cast actors who can carry the audience through that story’s weaknesses. Gump and Cast Away would be nowhere without Tom Hanks. Flight would be nothing without Denzel Washington as a pilot who miraculously crash-lands a malfunctioning plane and saves dozens of lives, only to have his alcohol and drug addiction revealed, leaving him vulnerable to blame and even manslaughter charges.
Flight is at its best in the extended, astonishing crash scene, a taut action episode that builds genuine suspense and plays to Zemeckis’ craftsmanlike strengths. We recognize that some characters on screen — including heroic yet believably terrified flight attendants – might not survive.
But that may be the last genuine element in the film. Even the pilot’s name, Whip Whitaker, sounds bogus. Washington does what he can with this cliched character, the damaged hero, fighting his addiction. As he showed in Training Day, Washington can be strongest when he plays against type as a malicious guy. In Flight, he has the out-of-control scenes and anger that suggest his character’s demons, but even then the film feels like it’s running out the clock waiting for Whip’s noble side to take over.
Everything else in John Gatins’ (Real Steel) screenplay is even more calculated and false. Kelly Reilly plays a drug addict who meets Whitaker in the hospital after the crash and becomes his new love. Apart from a glimpse of a track mark early on, the most visible sign of her addiction is smudged eyeliner.
John Goodman, as a drug-dealing friend, arrives as unlikely comic relief, spouting smart-ass remarks, in Bermuda shorts and a ponytail, looking like he’s switched characters with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.
Don Cheadle gets to play it straight and is as strong as ever as Whitaker’s exasperated but very capable lawyer; he seems to be in an entirely different film.
After plenty of predictable turns — the media chases Whitaker, his teenaged son rejects him, his girlfriend finds him dead drunk on the floor, his union rep tries to keep him clean — we get to the climactic National Transportation Safety Board hearing that will determine his future. In the build-up to that episode every camera shot of a liquor bottle is overwrought; at the hearing, Whitaker’s responses defy reason, much less plausibility.
Back to the Future is great fun and a culty classic, but that’s not what Zemeckis’ elevated, auteurist stature is based on. It rests on overblown, sturdily conventional movies like Gump, which resembles Flight in the way special-effects wizardly masks the film’s hollowness. Flight is not badly made. It’s something worse: a sham.