Before delving into “Flight” itself, let’s just take a moment to appreciate what director Robert Zemeckis has done here. Namely, he’s made a live-action film. I really don’t think that can be applauded enough. This is the man who gave us “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Cast Away.” Whatever your opinion of his talent, he’s a cultural touchstone and technological innovator – and for the past decade his only significant cinematic contribution was making “the uncanny valley” a household phrase. Kudos for finally rising out of the terrifying mo-cap depths, Bob.
For his first foray into live action since 2000, Zemeckis starts off in familiar territory: namely, a spectacular, thrilling airplane crash sequence that makes brilliant use of both CGI and practical effects. The opening crash of “Cast Away” was rightly praised as one of the most terrifying and riveting of such sequences ever (I can personally vouch for the fact that watching this scene only a couple of days before going on a trans-Atlantic flight is a startlingly terrible idea), but its cousin here in “Flight” might top it. Whereas part of the power of the crash in “Cast Away” came from the knowledge that Tom Hanks would inevitably end up as the sole survivor, “Flight” turns the tables a bit, as one man desperately struggles to save everyone else aboard his passenger plane.
That man would be Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who, even in the brief ten minutes or so before his plane inexplicably drops out of the sky, manages to establish himself as a divorced alcoholic and drug addict with a tendency to drink on the job. He is also cool and competent, however (this IS Denzel Washington we’re talking about), and at the end of the day his expert flying ends up saving countless lives. And it seems that should be all – a few crew members are tragically killed, but overall Whitaker is received as a hero, something akin to the pilot of the Miracle on the Hudson.
But of course a major incident like an airline crash requires extensive investigation, and gradually other people begin to realize what we in the audience have known all along: that Whitaker was drinking just before the plane crashed. It’s a curious ethical question Zemeckis and his screenwriter John Gatins are raising here: we never for a moment think the crash was Whitaker’s fault, but legally it hardly matters. With the help of a slick union lawyer (Don Cheadle), Whitaker must do everything he can to hide his alcoholism, or risk going to jail for manslaughter.
Of course, Whitaker is well practiced in denying his addiction. Zemeckis is not interested in the legal mystery of what “really” happened on the plane, but in a heartfelt portrayal of one man struggling to confront his own self-destructive tendencies. It’s a genuinely earnest effort all around, following in the tradition of addiction dramas like “The Lost Weekend” and “Leaving Las Vegas.” Unfortunately, that’s a pretty well-trod tradition, and “Flight” has little new to add to the mix.
The thankless Addict with a Heart of Gold/Elisabeth Shue role here goes to English actress Kelly Reilly, who you might sort of recognize as Watson’s redundant wife from the “Sherlock Holmes” movies. Here, Reilly does a great job of suggesting her character Nicole’s history of pain and loss – a subtle strain of weakness and regret that the film ditches at the earliest possible moment in order to turn her into the Model Rehabbed Addict. Nicole immediately goes from being hospitalized for an overdose to attending AA meetings and desperately encouraging Whip to get his life together – advice that might ring a little more true if we hadn’t just seen Nicole taking heroin from a skeezy porn director only about half an hour earlier. “Flight” could’ve been far more intriguing if Nicole and Whip were similarly lost and defiant of their addiction. Instead they just slide into lazy archetypes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lifetime movie.
However, Nicole’s character at least fits tonally with Zemeckis’ atmosphere of understated character drama. I’m not sure what the hell he and Gatins were trying to do with Harling Mays, Whip’s best friend/preferred drug dealer. Played with John Goodman’s usual aging-Boomer charm, Mays is only about two non sequiturs short of a Coen brothers film. He’s obviously supposed to play a kind of Mephistopheles role in Whitaker’s life (the Rolling Stones cues make that point blatantly enough), enabling Whip’s addictions; meanwhile, his scenes add some flashes of comic relief to an otherwise sober film. But these sequences, particularly a climactic scene in which Mays is called in to “cure” Whitaker’s hangover before a critical investigation hearing, wildly clash with the otherwise down-to-earth depiction of substance abuse. Cheech and Chong wouldn’t really be amusing if other people’s lives actually depended on them.
And it’s not as if Zemeckis doesn’t go out of his way to show us just how destructive Whitaker’s behavior has been. He’s estranged from his wife and son, he’s essentially tarnished the reputation of his hard-working father and grandfather, he’s a bad influence on Nicole, he’s a bad friend to his old piloting compatriot Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), one of his former lovers died in the crash and his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is crippled. In their own ways, each of them make their own overtures to Whip to get help, some more successfully than others. That co-pilot in particular, a fiercely religious young man, begs Whitaker to pray for healing in a scene that’s only about half as uncomfortable for us as it must be for Whip.
Notions of faith and healing float around nebulously in “Flight” – besides the co-pilot and his terrifying wife, the plane accidentally knocks the belfry off a country church and Don Cheadle’s lawyer goes to a lot of trouble to blame the entire accident on an “act of God.” But the film never pays off these ideas in any particularly satisfactory manner – Whip trundles towards his inevitable redemption, and it sure seems like he would’ve gotten there even if he had smashed into an office park instead. And indeed, it’s not like there aren’t yet redeemable qualities to “Flight:” Washington’s performance is engaging, and a newcomer named James Badge Dale nearly steals the entire film with one scene as a garrulous cancer patient. But it fails to introduce any kinks to a predictable formula.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars