Without a doubt Steven Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis’ best films are Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and Forrest Gump (1994). I’ll throw Cast Away (2000) in there simply because it speaks to the person in all of us who has ever had to endure long bouts of loss or loneliness due to any form of loss. And that’s where Flight picks up. It’s not the amusement ride of Zemeckis’ youth but rather the sobering adult film—not the nudity kind—that once again, like Cast Away, skirts a sermon-like preaching that suggests our course in life is written. Can there be acts of God? Which by the way reminds me of that other Zemeckis film Contact (1997) where Jodie Foster’s character struggles both with the questions of God’s existence and the existence of alien life forms in the universe. Here we have Oscar winner Denzel Washington as an airline pilot struggling with an alcohol addiction and the best way for Zemeckis to approach it is by not swinging for the fences but by going for the stand-up double instead.
The Story: Pure and simple, Flight is about a man struggling with his addiction to alcohol. But this alcoholic is a pilot named Whip Whitaker, played with Oscar-worthy subtlety by Washington, who as a weathered airline captain has the wherewithal to superhumanly right and safely land a doomed flight.
The Goods: The word doom and God are used quite a bit in Flight. Characters who struggle with the fact their lives were nearly lost and at the hands of a pilot who may have been intoxicated. Reckless might be what they’re thinking in describing the man that saved them. This puts an ever increasing burden on Whitaker who tries to wash it all away with beer, vodka and bourbon and in copious amounts. This is a choice he makes, maybe for some things that never quite worked out for him in his past, just as there are choices for Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly (best known as Watson’s fiancé in Sherlock Holmes (2009)), a drug addict who nearly takes her life still struggling with the death of her mother.
Classic filmmakers and actors have tackled the alcohol issue before in films such as Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) or with Jack Lemmon’s role in Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and the extraordinary Leaving Las Vegas (1995) which won Nicolas Cage a Best Actor Oscar. Washington’s performance is no different as he thoroughly represents, in tearful eyes, gaited walk when dry and cool stride when high—with stuttering words over a bottom lip steadfastly protruding toward any open beer bottle or alcoholic beverage—the personification of a proud man who is also a coward. He is a trained Navy pilot, good at what he does, and also the father of a child he hardly knows. This portrayal is all Washington’s doing, conveying deftly the man who struggles internally while also being the man who calmly lands an upside down plane loaded with passengers…and does so like a man made of steel. Or a man so loaded he can take on the biggest brawler in the bar.
The plane incident you see in this film is not unlike the spectacular aftermath immediately following the Federal Express plane crash in Cast Away. Flight picks up on those kind of startling special effects—the bigger, unexpected placement of objects doing astonishing things unimaginable—that takes your breath away without any real razzle dazzle. This isn’t Transformers, but in a way it’s better than the total sum of bells and whistles in any of those effects-laden films. Flight is cherry-picked in terms of details and special moments, and it’s Zemeckis’ bread and butter—the mixing of a hyper reality that is greater than, but also just on the cusp of, reality as we know it.
The Flaws: Unfortunately, the instances of special effects really suit Zemeckis better than dramatics and let’s just say there are about twenty minutes of good effects and nearly two hours of drama. The main fault I have with Flight is that (not only is it too long, but) it teeters on and hints at the kind of magic we find in fantasies. There is a touched-on vibe to enchantment that we’ve seen in Cast Away, Forrest Gump and Contact that runs through Bob’s films. But it doesn’t go far enough in Flight, nor do the special effects, to make Flight any more than what feels mostly like a made-for-TV drama about adults struggling with addiction. I know that sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be…it’s just an observation that might say to a young filmmaker, hey, look at what’s going on here and see if you can write a fix for this problem.
Whip and Nicole “meet” like Chuck meets the fated angel wing redheaded lady in Cast Away (it should be noted Nicole in Flight is also a redhead). Just as Nicole takes a hit of heroin called “Taliban,” and is taken away by EMTs rolling her body out of her run-down apartment, somewhere in Atlanta (it’s cool that we see the AT&T building and The Westin Peachtree Plaza), we at the same time see Whitaker’s plane flying overhead, inverted, as it makes its way to its fated crash. And thus the two shall meet. We move toward that relationship but then get side-tracked with Whip’s struggles and a legal case by the NTSB that the pilot’s union wish to win. A romance however between Whip and Nicole might make for a more fun outing at the movies. But then that would be a different movie.
The Call: Stow the dough. It’s tough to say that considering how good Washington is in this or any of his roles. We can’t thank pilots like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger enough for having the faculty to safely land bum planes. The last question we would probably ever ask from Sullenberger’s miraculous 2009 landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River is what if he had a substantially high blood alcohol level. Maybe what Flight needs is a dose of that newsreel feel; that the straightforward, least risk to camera placement and movement in this Robert Zemeckis film dampens what is otherwise a remarkable story.
Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence. Running time is a long, long, long 2 hours and 18 minutes. Also starring John Goodman and the great Don Cheadle. One of my favorite films about plane crash survivors is the Peter Weir film Fearless (1993) with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. I highly recommend it if you can catch it on Netflix or Redbox.
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