The somewhat ambiguously titled Flight definitely comes across far darker than the film’s marketing campaign makes it out to be. Relying on the almost universally recognizable visage of Denzel Washington in full on pilot garb and bold letters heralding director Robert Zemeckis’ involvement, even the trailer makes the film out to be somewhat of a feel good story about a hero who just so happens to be overcoming addiction in the most positive of ways, but the film itself is assuredly as dark as anything Zemeckis has done in his career.
We first meet our (anti)hero Whip Whitaker (Washington) as he’s waking up in a hotel room before making his way to the airport to charter another flight. Instead of attacking the day with clear eyes and a level head, he’s just finished doing coke, drinking booze, and having sex with one of his flight attendants. A functional alcoholic in the fullest, Whip reports for duty, still drinking on the plane and taking a snooze once they hit cruising altitude. He’s not the nicest guy around, but when a mechanical malfunction forces the plane into a complete freefall, Whip somehow miraculously lands the aircraft with minimal, but sadly unavoidable casualties.
It’s apparent from the excellent opening 45 minutes that Zemeckis is putting his blockbuster sensibilities to great use in service of a darker story. It feels more like a film that Martin Scorsese would be making rather than anything in the Back to the Future and Cast Away filmmaker’s career. Zemeckis allows the audience just enough time to get to know the character well enough for everyone watching to pass judgment before adding an element that will make them question exactly how they feel about him. Regardless of what anyone thought of Whip before the crash, one hopes the incident would have awoken him to a greater problem with his life.
Sadly, that isn’t the case and the film turns into something that feels oddly like a companion piece to Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead not only in tone, but in terms of visual acumen, editing, and use of a pop song heavy soundtrack. Whip recovers from his injuries in the hospital facing a federal inquiry from the FAA, but his toxicology reports have been thrown out with the help of a somewhat slimy stooge (Don Cheadle) that still hates his guts despite representing him and a sympathetic union boss (Bruce Greenwood). He’s constantly being enabled by his goofy, over the top drug dealer (John Goodman), and on the other hand he’s being courted into Alcoholics Anonymous by a good natured former addict (Kelly Reilly) that Whip meets in the hospital and takes in so she can actually get clean.
What Zemeckis does best here outside of knowing how to film harrowing looking plane crashes comes in how he captures Whip’s not so gradual descent so far past rock bottom that even seeing the floor would be a step up. There’s quite unsurprisingly a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding Washington’s performance here, and rightfully so. Aside from the complexities of playing a character hounded by the media and questioning his own role in what some people think was nothing short of a miracle, he’s also wrestling with a lot of inner demons – like his divorce and estranged son, unresolved issues with his own deceased father – that the actual crash seems like small potatoes to him in comparison.
Washington plays Whip as someone perfectly content to run his life as far into the ground as possible as long as he can keep coming up with lies and people to cover for him. He’s respected for his abilities, but he’s reached the point in his own messed up life where he thinks he can merely coast on his laurels and accomplishments to make everyone think everything is fine. His moments that document the character at his lowest are some of the most convincing sequences of on screen addiction ever captured. It’s even more impressive when one factors in that his character doesn’t have just one bender, but several over the course of the film.
It isn’t all dour, though, and with the help of Cheadle and Goodman (who literally act like the respective angel and devil on his shoulders), there’s some much needed gallows humour on hand to keep things from getting almost unbearably uncomfortable. The portrait is unflinching for the most part, but release is there when the audience needs it most.
If only the film itself had managed to have a bit more follow through, because it almost collapses entirely once it reaches the climactic FAA hearing at the end. It becomes the film it wasn’t for the other two hours of its overlong 145 minute running time. It becomes outwardly bombastic and almost entirely too sentimental. There’s suspense as to whether or not the pretty much already free and clear Whip will crack under pressure, but it’s all a bunch of grandstanding that feels artificial when everything else is raw and unforced. Also, taking away from matters slightly is a somewhat religious tone from John Gatins screenplay that Zemeckis might be taking the piss out of when it was meant to be somewhat sincere. It’s just awkward.
Overall, though, it’s great to have Zemeckis back doing a live action film after a trio of motion capture films, and for it to be a film that feels oddly personal and equally outside of his comfort zone makes it a grand achievement in spite of some glaring faults. It’s consistently engrossing, well acted, and it reasserts the filmmaker as someone who hasn’t lost a step when it comes to dealing with flesh and blood actors outside of a computer based program.
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Top image: A scene from Flight. Courtesy Paramount Pictures.