Movie Review: FLIGHT

Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in “Flight”

Release date: November 2, 2012
Directed by: Robert Zemekis
Screenplay by: John Gatins
Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood,
Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velaquez, James Badge Dale

Rating: R; Running Time: 139 minutes

Denzel Washington rescues Flight twice. As the pilot Whip Whitaker, he pulls off enough flight-sleight of hand to keep his 50-ton commuter plane from spiraling straight down to earth, saving 96 of the 102 lives on board. As the actor, he takes a heavy-handed story, also threatening to similarly plummet, and glides the film to cinematic worthiness. Lesser talents might not have steered this craft half as well.

But like a Jackson-Ridgefield 88 Passenger Jet speeding nose first toward solid ground … I’m getting ahead of myself.

Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly in “Flight”

Seasoned airline pilot Whitaker, celebrated as a hero after saving the majority of passengers in a plane crash en route from Florida to Atlanta, is trying to avoid everyone and everything. While the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), the pilot union reps and the media all try to track him down, he flees to his deceased father’s farm to get perspective and maybe, if he chucks every liquor and beer bottle into the trash, to dry out. Since rescue is the name of Whitaker’s game, after meeting a recovering heroine addict (Kelly Reilly’s Nicole) at the hospital, he coincidentally shows up just in time to whisk her away from a scummy landlord, taking her off to the farmhouse with him. While Nicole embraces a newfound sobriety, no amount of her hints, recriminations or invitations to AA meetings is going to help reverse Whitaker’s path of self-destruction. That’s a flight he’s going to have to take solo.

The script by John Gatins (Reel Steel, Coach Carter) is cloudy at best. Perhaps meant to be an ironic push-pull, the story of a flawed hero battling addiction can’t make up its mind. As the plot unveils, Whitaker is praised for his heroism; he’s thanked by some grateful survivors, while others threaten potential lawsuits. And even though the investigating committee members of the NTSB can point to the jet’s malfunctioning component, they still doggedly try to corner Whitaker. For what? For pulling off the greatest trick of survival in aviation history? The plot’s superficial schizophrenia is annoying; it seems that director Robert Zemekis and Gatins don’t trust their audience to discern the conflict, continuously shoving us one way or the other. Which leads to a ridiculous takeaway, i.e., if Whitaker had been sober, he wouldn’t have had the overconfident pluck to pull off a miracle. Begging the obvious cautionary note for potentially stoned pilots: Please kids, don’t try this at home.

After a 12-year recess from live action film, Robert Zemekis returns from the land of mo-cap (A Christmas Carol, Beowulf, The Polar Express) to examine a character, like Tom Hanks’ Chuck in 2000′s Cast Away, who finds himself adrift after a plane crash. But unlike Chuck, Whitaker is lost in a sea of his own self-inflicted mental anguish. And the journey “home,” however that word may resonate, is just as precarious.

Portraying the self-deceiving Whitaker, Washington reminds us once again of his enormous talent. Here, he reinvents himself, trading in his usual lean physique for a paunch and sagging jowls. Whitaker’s battle rages within, his bleary bloodshot eyes reflecting weakness and self-loathing as he bellows in defiance, “I choose to drink! I’ve got an ex-wife and a son I never talk to. Know why? Because I choose to drink!” It’s a stunning performance, reflecting palpable guilt and shame and helplessness … and far more subtle than his Academy Award-winning performance of a corrupt narcotics detective in Training Day. Expect to see Washington on Oscar’s short list for Best Actor of 2012.

Akin to the character of Whip Whitaker, Zemekis offers bits of genius diluted with flaws. The entirety of the first act’s plane sequences may be some of the most riveting in cinematic history (rivaled by Zemekis’ own opening crash in Cast Away). Just as harrowing, when Whitaker considers breaking his sobriety over a mini-bottle of vodka, we are similarly transfixed. And yet such strong work is juxtaposed against other, lesser scenes with ham-fisted overdo such as: tacking on a second ending when one would suffice; using an obvious, late ’60s druggy rock-fueled soundtrack; introducing a pointless episode of jokey, zealous Christianity; and indulging John Goodman, allowing him to chew, or rather, snort the scenery as a wacky Falstaffian coke dealer who tromps all over the tone of the piece. As opposed to the perfectly-rendered ghoulish humor of the chemo-affected chatty cancer patient — a marvelous James Badge Dale — who, representing a bone-white specter of Whitaker’s and Nicole’s recent brushes with death, sounds a cautionary note that the road may not be as long or as benevolent as either of them anticipates.

The above quibbles notwithstanding, go for the plane crash. Stay for the fall out. It’s a hell of a trip.
Rating on a scale of 5 instances of flying high: 3.5

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