Review: Flight

In what is perhaps my favorite quote on the subject, Homer Simpson once toasted, “To alcohol! The cure to and cause of all of life’s problems!” Indeed, that devilish friend has the uncanny ability to bring out both the best or worst in many, and in rare cases, both. When one grips the bottle tighter than his loved ones, then we begin to see the inner destruction of lives. Flight is a film about all these things, but more vitally, it is about a man who refuses to acknowledge his addiction, even when his actions have devastating consequences. In what proves to be Denzel Washington’s most accomplished performance to date, Flight is elevated to a well made adult drama, despite a few gaps in narrative execution.

You might never guess it, but Flight was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who for the last decade has been aloft in the stratosphere of animation, with films such as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. This film is his return to live action since that other movie with a pivotal plane crash, Cast Away. Fortunately, the comparisons end there, for Flight pulls few punches in the way of sentimentality. Instead, it provides a character study of a man whose personal demons lurk beneath the surface. After a night of sleepless, drunken debauchery, airplane pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) takes to the captain’s deck for a routine flight to Atlanta when things go terribly wrong. Partially due to faulty equipment and partially due to his own recklessness, Whip and his hundred passengers on board nose dive towards the ground and in an improbable feat, manage to level out by the miracle of inverting the plane and landing in a field upright at the last possible moment. Though many lives are saved, a few casualties cannot be avoided. When an investigation into the accident points towards Whip’s intoxication, Whip is forced into a corner, both public and private, that he may not be able to escape.

Denzel Washington has been among the most well liked A-list actors for twenty years, with charisma and utter command dominating all of his performances. Though his work is clearly adored, he has been less than dynamic, dialing into the same type of performance for nearly everything since 2001’s Training Day. In fact, Washington is becoming a good successor to the duality found in actors like Jack Nicholson, whose personas tend to dominate over their true acting abilities. That same Denzel bravado dominates much of Flight, but this time, its a veil concealing a truly weak man, and Washington allows for Whip to emerge from behind that veil at key moments. At a funeral for one of the deceased flight attendants, for instance, Whip finds himself quietly pleading with one of the survivors to lie for him in public in order to conceal his substance addiction. Its a quietly effective scene and shows a rare Washington playing completely out of the control of his situation. The remaining cast is quite good surrounding Washington, especially an enlivened John Goodman as an old friend of Whip’s who dangerously reaffirms his substance abuse, to occasionally humorous results. Throughout the film, Whip develops a relationship with another drug riddled woman (Kelly Reilly), and though she foolishly tries to pull him out of his addiction, her addition to the film ends up dangling without much purpose, save for a well executed scene when Whip first meets her.

For all of the visual wonder we might expect from Robert Zemeckis (the same man who brought us Back to the Future and Forrest Gump), Flight is a surprisingly restrained, adult film. However, prior to the legal proceedings, the film’s opening twenty minutes are something of a master class in an action filmmaking. Even from the grounded safety of a movie theater, watching the doomed plane’s descent is legitimately terrifying experience, as Zemeckis rarely cuts outside of the cockpit and cabin, maintaining an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. The rest of the film never matches the sheer intensity of the first act, nor does it need to. Though occasionally turbulent in narrative execution, Zemeckis’ film nevertheless maintains a sturdy altitude in conveying Whitaker’s arc as a character, including a singular image at a critical juncture that says everything about the man in the span of less than thirty seconds. After such a lengthy departure from the real world, Zemeckis’ landing is very welcome. With the aid of Denzel Washington’s most complex turn of his career, and a compelling look into how long a man can continue lying to himself, Flight may not have chartered an entirely fresh or sturdy course in the endless narratives of alcoholism, but its overall journey is worth the destination. And I’m finished with the puns.

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~ by romancinema on November 11, 2012.

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