Flight is a curious project that has the potential to be two very different movies, and in an odd way they almost cancel each other out. On one hand, it’s an inspirational awards-hungry drama about a damaged man who becomes an unlikely hero and decides to better himself as a result. On the other, it’s a more challenging look at addiction and self-destruction with a character that refuses to fit into the beats of a redemption story. Had director Robert Zemeckis and company pushed the movie farther into either direction, Flight could have either been an Oscar-gobbling crowd pleaser or a complicated moral drama swimming in critical accolades. Instead, the movie floats awkwardly between both options and while it’s filled with brilliant moments and sequences, they never gel in a satisfying way. Flight remains intriguing because of the internal conflicts, but will ultimately appeal directly to no one and be of only mild interest to those who see it. That’s enough to make the flick more compelling that most of the awards season dreck shuffled out around it and is also enough to ensure a quick nosedive into obscurity.
Zemeckis introduces audiences to Denzel Washington’s fantastically named Whip Whitaker waking up hung over in a hotel room with a naked lady, drinking last night’s left over booze and snorting a line of cocaine while arguing with his ex-wife on the phone about child support (so, not exactly a squeaky clean hero). Then he throws on a pilot’s uniform and heads out to fly a major airline, sipping on some vodka while warning passengers about turbulence. Then the plane starts falling apart through no fault of the drunken pilot and he pulls off some miraculous maneuvers (including turning the jet upside down, which the pilot-licensed Zemeckis claims is possible), managing to land the aircraft with only a few deaths to the 100+ passenger/crew list. Whitaker is named a hero in the media, but there is a little problem with the toxicology report taken while he was passed out after the crash. Cocaine and liquor aren’t generally considered a pilot’s best friend.
With a lawsuit against the airline imminent due to faulty equipment, the company seeks a scapegoat and a coke n’ boozed up pilot seems like just the ticket, despite that whole “hero” thing. An old buddy and current pilot union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) join forces to help Whip out of his jam, but they seem more interested in covering up the problem than actually getting the severe alcoholic any help. Whip doesn’t do himself any favor either, at first embracing sobriety after the incident only to spiral out of control after learning of the lawsuit. The only one who seems to care is former heroin addict/masseuse Nichole (Kelly Reilly) who meets Whip in the hospital and acts as his conscience for the rest of the movie like so many wasted female performers in addiction dramas before her. From here the movie constantly teeters between AA-sponsored moralizing and dark self-destructive drama/comedy. Throughout it all Whip proves to be a far more complex character than tends to show up in these sorts of Hollywood dramas and one who refuses to conform to convention. It’s just a shame that character and the goals of the script don’t ever seem to be on the same page.
As usual Denzel provides one hell of a grounding center to the movie in a performance that’s one of his best and is sure to get him some nominations. Washington has empathy for Whip that translates to the audience, but he’s also fearlessly willing to portray a self-destructive douchebag that courts little sympathy. It’s a fascinating character that Washington fully fleshes out by the time the credits role, never ceasing to feel like a real and flawed human being regardless of what the screenwriting demands. The supporting cast is strong around him even if the film provides a few awkward instances of awards-bait scene stealing. Greenwood and Cheadle turn stern authority figures into sympathetic friends with understandably tried patience, while Reilly manages to turn a writing device into something approximating a human being in limited screen time. The real standout in support in John Goodman as Whip’s longtime drug-buddy/supplier. He seems to walk into Flight out of another movie (The Big Lebowski being the most obvious. He ain’t Walter, but it another time and place he would have been a perfect bowling buddy for the Dude) and gets huge laughs out of drug fueled excess, particularly during a sequence when he’s brought in with a magic bag that will sober up Whip through cocaine just in time to give his official deposition on the crash. He’s hilarious in every scene and even though the character is probably superfluous, that’s true of many of the best things in the film.
After parting ways with his co-screenwriter Bob Gale shortly after the completion of the Back to the Future trilogy, Zemeckis has essentially become a virtuoso sequence director who tends to loose track of the whole in his pictures. Even his worst films like Death Becomes Her or What Lies Beneath have a handful of standout set pieces, and Flight is no exception. Aside from the John-Goodman-on-drugs show, the director stages one of the most terrifying and visceral plane crashes ever caught on film. It’s a stunner that guarantees the movie will never play on airlines, while also ensuring that people will always have a reason to pick up the film on some sort of disc of digital media (there will be many conversations like this, “hey brah, you see that amazing plane crash in Flight? It’s tits”). Zemeckis also seems to enjoy the dark comedy of Whip’s self destruction and the film works best when it slips into moral ambiguity, as if the populist filmmaker finally wanted to make one of those movies his contemporaries cranked out in the 70s while he was making anarchistic live-action cartoon comedies. That makes the first forty minutes or so fly by and feel like the best work the director has done in years. Unfortunately, when things get moral, Zemeckis loses the thread. He doesn’t seem as committed to the anti-addiction message of the story and shoots the material in a grand-standing style that only serves to emphasize the melodrama in a grating way.
Now, I shouldn’t be too hard on Flight. Though undeniably flawed, it’s still a strong movie overall. Zemeckis emerges from a decade of disappointing digital dream-making and returns to live action in style. If nothing else, the man always know where to put a camera and the film looks gorgeous. Denzel delivers one of the more complex characters of his career as a leading man and given that he’s arguably the most consistent star performer in La-La-land, that’s saying something. Throw in some of the finest John Goodman hilarity in years and you’ve got a movie that’s definitely worth seeing. It’s just a shame that the tone slingshots from challenging drama to obvious weepy so often and at nearly 2.5 hours long, it takes a hell of a long journey to simply let audiences know that drinking sucks. However, it would have been all to easy to round of the edges and tone this thing down to a PG-13 variation on the Chesley “Sully” Sullenberge story. I suppose the fact that Flight R-rated, fairly morally ambiguous, and came out of Hollywood is enough for it to qualify as an achievement of sorts. It’s too bad the movie never goes all the way in its darker impulses, but at least it went there at all. These days, that’s something. And if nothing else, at least Zemeckis is out of his digital playground and working with real people again. The guy clearly has talent, and Flight makes it clear that he hasn’t lost his interest in storytelling in favor of storyboarding. He’s rusty, but based on Flight alone, you can’t write the guy off just yet