Robert Zemeckis’ first foray into live-action drama since his daring Tom Hanks survival vehicle Cast Away shares similar DNA with it through and through; not only do both films explore the fallout of a plane crash, but in each, Zemeckis relies on an outstanding central performance to compensate for perceived narrative misgivings. If Zemeckis got away with the minimalism of his 2000 film more convincingly than he does the overstuffed dramatics of Flight, it’s still a thrilling, thought-provoking effort that proves a decade-long stay in the mo-cap wilderness has not hampered the director’s talents for organic filmmaking.
Returning to R-rated territory for the first time in thirty years, it’s evident from Flight’s opening scene – in which Denzel Washington’s airline captain “Whip” Whittaker, wakes up for a flight, boozed out, coked out, with a gorgeous woman in tow – that the director is not playing around. Whittaker takes a line of coke for pep and heads off to pilot the short flight, while a judicious cut to Whittaker standing proudly in his captain’s hat deceptively paints him as a hero, when really, he’s more of a coward, an addict who refuses to accept that he has a problem. The various tics that Washington imbues Whip with are both hilarious and troubling; it’s clear to the co-pilot of all people that he shouldn’t be flying the plane.
The inevitable crash sequence – the cause of a malfunctioning piece of machinery on the plane – is spectacular and terrifying, something Zemeckis is no stranger to given the similar events of Cast Away. However, this is a far more dramatic, sustained feat of tension, Whip ultimately “inverting” the plane – that’s flying it upside down – in order to correct its descent. It’s a bravura sequence and a rescue that, despite the six fatalities it causes, the film argues is probably down to Whip’s aptitude as a pilot, regardless of the fact that he was wasted, something which we cannot see caused the crash in the first place.
Of course, the struggle to control the plane is really just a neat metaphor for Whip’s own struggle to avoid a personal descent that takes place throughout the film, outed as an alcoholic to his inner-circle while remaining fearful that the media and crash investigators will also catch wind of it. Though after the crash Flight does settle down temporarily into a more conventional addiction drama – we get some tacit insights into why he might be an addict, and there’s the inevitable scene where he pours the drinks and drugs down the drain – things reach their most interesting once the NTSB begins clipping at Whip’s heels. Don Cheadle is superbly cast as Whip’s lawyer Hugh, a character used largely to highlight the amusing legal ironies of the investigation, which seems keener to assign blame for the 6 deaths than the 96 lives Whip miraculously saved. Responsibility is bandied about like a football, and though it’s clearly the manufacturer at fault, it is of course much easier to blame one judgement-impaired person than a faceless business.
It boils down to one question – would the other six people be alive if Whip was sober? And the answer, we can glean early on, is almost definitely not. We’re pretty sure of most of the answers early on, which makes Whip’s potential criminalisation all the more frustrating if perhaps a necessity to save him from himself. Do we want him to be chastised? It provides some thought-provoking questions for the audience and forges the duality of Whip’s character, painted as a hero for performing a daring crash landing that 99% of pilots could not have, while noting his inherent recklessness for even piloting the thing under the influence in the first place. Washington delivers one of his finest performances – one that really exceeds the bounds of the material, in fact – as a man veering ever closer to the edge, and scarily, seeming keen to fling himself off.
Once the initial addiction aspects of the story are played out, Zemeckis could have pared it down and stuck to the investigation, which is really the film’s most compelling aspect. After the tenth scene of Whip necking a booze bottle, it does become a little wearisome, even if Washington lends it plenty of gravitas. The romantic storyline that cuts through Whip’s tale – in which he connects with a junkie, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) – is meanwhile shot along with little effort; she’s a masseuse, he has post-flight injuries – we can see where it’s going. Furthermore, this relationship makes for one questionable scene in which Whip attends an AA meeting with Nicole; surely this is a terrible idea if you’ve got a pending NTSB investigation and all eyes are on you?
Also, the inevitable relapse is the stuff of cliché, but thankfully a fine supporting cast helps to provide plenty of distraction. John Goodman is especially great as Harling, Whip’s dealer who, in one hilarious scene, is tasked with straightening Whip out after an all-night bender. James Badge Dale also gets an excellent scene as a cancer patient at the hospital, and the likes of Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo round out the cast just fine as cogs on opposite sides of the administrative machine.
Whip’s final hearing is tense, though avoids a thornier, more provocative ending in favour of something that’s evidently rather studio-friendly. Again, though, it’s anchored by Washington’s ever-heartfelt portrayal. Would Flight be better if it ended on a cliffhanger five minutes earlier? Absolutely. Are the romantic elements pretty perfunctory without much in the way of pay-off? Sure, and they pad the film out to an unnecessary 139 minutes, yet still, for at least two-thirds of its runtime, this is a tightly-wound, thoroughly engaging outing.
Flight flags when it defers to the more conventional elements of an addiction drama, but Denzel Washington’s rousing portrayal gives the picture the fuel to succeed.
Flight is out in the US now and in UK cinemas February 1st, 2013.
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