Rating:Robert Zemeckis has spent the last decade mired in the claptrap of motion capture computer-animation, directing a trio of movies that couldn’t quite leap the uncanny valley. Twelve years have passed since his last live action film (Cast Away). Leaning hard on its R-rating, Flight is actually a contemplative character study festooned by one scary airplane crash. But rather than make us believe, Zemeckis crash lands his movie with a shoddy romantic subplot and an ending shoehorned in so American audiences won’t walk away bitching about the film being a downer.
Denzel Washington, returning again to the disaster milieu after his successful turn in Unstoppable, plays pilot Whip Whitaker, an unrepentant drug abuser and maverick. The movie begins with a fully naked woman climbing out of Whitaker’s bed, Zemeckis’ camera lingering on her lithe frame. While Whitaker argues with his ex-wife on a cell, the woman gets dressed, passing him a beer and then a joint. Just before they leave, Whip does a line of coke.
We soon find out that Whip is on his way to fly a plane of 102 people from Orlando to Atlanta and his bedmate is one of the flight attendants. Ominous rain clouds welcome Whip as he guides the plane up and into a smooth patch in a tense scene that matches the terror of Cast Away’s opening moments. To reward himself, Whip infuses his orange juice with some of the plane’s vodka and then passes out in the cockpit, leaving his fearful co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) to man the plane. Then something horrible happens and it’s up to the impaired Whip to stop the plummeting aircraft and save the lives of everyone onboard.
Flight settles down following the crash when Whip wakes up in a hospital, bandaged and hailed as a hero. However, he soon learns that a toxicology report picked up the booze and the coke in his system and that he is under investigation by the Feds. It is here that Zemeckis posits the main dilemma of Flight: does it matter if Whip was under the influence as he was able to do the impossible and save nearly everyone onboard?
Washington attempts to pick up the slack here, since the rest of the film couldn’t possibly live up to that crash scene. A former A-list star, Washington spent much of the past decade starring in B-level action films such as The Book of Eli and Man on Fire. Washington turns in a simmering performance in Flight that reminds one of his good work years ago in Malcolm X and Glory. But unfortunately the actor has hitched his wagon to the post of Zemeckis, a known sentimentalist – one whose affinity for the maudlin sends the film into a tailspin.
The introduction of a parallel plotline right at the beginning signals danger for Flight as Zemeckis and writer John Gatins take the focus off of Washington’s dynamo pilot and hone in on junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who overdoses as the airplane crashes (I guess someone has been watching “Breaking Bad.”) The two meet in the hospital and begin a love affair, but Whip’s alcoholism worsens, even as Nicole kicks the drugs for good. While Whip is in abject denial that he suffers from addiction, lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) tries to save him from the investigation, even going as far as pinning the empty vodka bottles on Whip’s flight attendant lover who perished in the crash. Real jail time hangs over Whip for manslaughter, but he is a character who refuses to recognize his compulsion, even if it does cost him his freedom.
As the Nicole subplot and John Goodman’s inappropriately comic turn as Whip’s drug pusher/Man Friday elbow Flight away from being a respectable character study, Zemeckis isn’t content to let the film pass without a grand epiphany. If Flight had been made by a European director in a European film system, Whip would never cop to his addiction and he would still be drinking by the film’s end. Instead, Zemeckis forces his character into a false realization at a moment most melodramatic and laughably improper, negating all of Washington’s hard work for the prior two hours. He should have stopped it earlier during a moment where Whip, alone in a hotel room, must decide to drink or push forward with sobriety. It’s a quiet second from a director who rarely finds them. Too bad it’s buried by a saccharine finale that will likely shortlist Flight for an Academy Award.