Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Garcelle Beauvais, Tamara Tunie, and Brian Geraghty
Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action moviemaking has been long in the works. Since 2004, Zemeckis has been dealing with the parallels and pitfalls of motion capture with “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol.” Zemeckis is a director driven by strong characters with hearty emotional catharsis but with these motion capture films Zemeckis seemed more driven by control. It’s interesting because control is a big theme in his new film “Flight.” The movie explores notions of control in a chaotic world where the only way to make sense of it is by feeding into what makes us human, our weaknesses.
“Flight” follows the emergency crash landing of a commercial airliner, where Captain Whip Whitaker’s (Denzel Washington) daring maneuvering lands the airplane as safely as possible. There’s a question of how the airplane lost control, either by airplane malfunction or Whitaker’s alcoholism. When the film opens, we see the aftermath of a drunken night. The pilot Whitaker is woken up by a phone call from his ex-wife about his estranged son. A naked flight attendant Trina (Nadine Velazquez) gets ready for the day ahead. Both hungover (or still drunk) from the night before taking control of an airplane full of passengers. The flight is easy enough – Orlando, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia – but what happens in-between the cities is propulsive and heart stopping.
The takeoff was brazen, through a tumultuous thunderstorm, and the landing was in disarray. Zemeckis shows off his technical know-how and completely tells the audience that he hadn’t missed a beat since the year 2000, when his film “Cast Away” took the nation by storm. His ability to, not only convince an audience that the airplane is crashing but, convince an audience that the film will start with the death of the lead characters. Once the airplane crashes, the story kicks in with a character examination of Washington’s Whip Whitaker.
Whitaker is an alcoholic in denial. It’s clear from the start of the film when Whitaker wakes up and swigs a beer that this man is in no condition to operate an airplane full of passengers. Then this idea is confirmed when Whitaker snorts a line of Cocaine to “perk up.” There is a lot of drug use and irresponsible behavior in “Flight.” The film is very subversive. We’re rooting for Whip Whitaker to clean himself up but why. It seems only because he is the main character. He does horrible things to the people around him but still has enough charm and natural talent to keep us invested in him and his story. But while an investigation is underway on how this flight crashed, Whitaker meets a Heroin drug addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) while in the hospital.
This love affair was started by mutual attraction, then need and necessity, then finally convenience. These two become trapped with each other as Nicole cleans up her act. Nicole becomes sober, while Whip is a mess but there’s still that initial attraction she had for him. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of “Flight.” The couple feels mismatched, and rightfully so, they’re supposed to be, but the lack of charm and chemistry between the two is hard to watch on the screening. This is the intent of the pairing, but it’s still not a very pleasant way to watch this character’s downfall.
Whitaker has more falling to do. As the investigation goes deeper, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is dead set to figure out what happened on this flight. A political struggle between the airline, the NTSB, and the pilot’s union is underlined but never fully explored. The film seems set to explore Whitaker’s alcoholism instead. As the importance of the pending case and the pilot negligence is brought to the center of the film, “Flight” is deep in the Whitaker character. It feels like we’ve been fooled thinking not enough time has been spent on the political implications of the film but then Zemeckis pulls the rug from under us and we realize everything comes together very well. We’re invested in practically every facet of the film without being aware of it.
“Flight” comes together quite well but there is a sneaking suspicion of being overly cautious with the audience. It feels like Zemeckis isn’t willing to leave things up to a smart audience when Denzel Washington’s performance is willing to fly freely. At times, “Flight” can be too much “on the nose” and sometimes the director has to spell things out for an audience when he could’ve left thing alone. This is what’s frustrating with “Flight.” It starts off with a bold move but then plays it safe when it comes to character development and emotions. It should be a smarter movie but it feels like it gets in front of itself.
But what is left is still a very well made and engaging film with strong performances from its stellar cast. “Flight” is riveting and compelling! It’s painful to see Washington’s character fall and fail so much but that’s how you know you’ve invested yourself into the movie. If you can believe an airplane can fly upside down, then you can believe in the power of redemption, control, and stability. “Flight” lines up pretty well with Zemeckis past work before taking up the motion capture experiments. The film has the worldview and faith of “Contact” and the self-discovery and character moments of “Cast Away.” It’s almost as if “Flight” explores the darker side of self-discovery, while “Cast Away” explores the redemptive nature of isolation. “Flight” doesn’t always fly cleanly but it’s a sure-fire powerful ride!