I have also seen the film and for the most part disliked it. The plane crash and Denzel are strong.
Robert Zemeckis has always been a filmmaker that best uses technology to tell his stories. Even his more serious films in the 90s (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, What Lies Beneath) used clever tech and special effects throughout to effectively spin their yarns. For the last decade, Zemeckis has experimented with motion capture animation, and although the films were not well received overall (I like The Polar Express quite a bit) he clearly found it to be an artistically satisfying journey. The plane crash sequence at the center of Flight, Zemeckis’ first live action film in over 10 years, is a marvel of technology and Hollywood filmmaking. It is harrowing, visceral, violent, and believable. It gets under your skin and puts you right in the pilot seat alongside Denzel Washington’s Whip Whittaker. Oddly, this opening sequence, so masterfully crafted, is juxtaposed with a tonally dissimilar sequence involving Kelly Reilly’s Nicole, and it is unfortunately clear from the get go that something isn’t quite right here.
Flight is a story of substance abuse and addiction. This is mature and heavy material, and it is the type of story that has the ability to challenge and inspire adult audiences. You often hear the complaint that Hollywood doesn’t make studio films for adults anymore, and in that regard Flight is a refreshing proposition. This is Robert Zemeckis stripped down in a way he perhaps never has been before, focusing entirely on the human element. In its attempt to explore the horrors of alcohol addiction, though, Flight takes many missteps. I was surprised to realize the film is rated R, and it attempts to be mature and frank with its material. In many cases, though, it comes off as a bunch of kind actors playing dress up, struggling to connect with the realities of the material. Zemeckis is not able to create an appropriate tone that suits the dark material. Bizarre and unfortunate music choices (whether it be his penchant to rely on classic rock or Alan Silvestri’s overt and maudlin score) highlight zippy camera work and awkward editing that fail to capture the intimacy and raw moments that material like this requires.
John Gatins’ script is a mishmash of ugly platitudes and rote psychology. With each step and descent into the darkness Flight takes the obvious, surface level approach. Denzel Washington takes his cue from Zemeckis and attempts to strip down his normal tics and antics, and this is the most convincing and nuanced he has been in some time. The script constantly betrays him, however, and while Denzel attempts to dig deep into the psychological implications of a man in severe denial of his substance abuse problem and how it is affecting his life and the life of those around him he is left struggling to latch onto material that lacks intelligence or worth. The film plays more like a warning pamphlet than anything that is real, and it is filled with horrible contrivances and one-note characters. Denzel is never given the opportunity to play off of a character that truly challenges him, whether it be Kelly Reilly’s admirable attempt to give life to a confused and poorly drawn female addict or Don Cheadle’s bland lawyer. As an audience member I wanted to reach into the screen and instill some life or soul into these characters, but instead they are walking screenwriting 101 archetypes. Only John Goodman has any spark in him, but in his 2 brief appearances he is hilariously cartoonish and makes no sense in the context of the film.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on alcohol or addiction, but I do know humans and have suffered my fair share of pain, confusion, and loneliness. The human element in Flight constantly rings false, and is filled with unfortunate and obvious Hollywood mawkishness. The film constantly struggles to connect to something real but ends up as contrived and psychologically superficial and inept as anything I can remember from recent time. The breaking point is the film’s climatic sequence in which a contrivance so utterly laughable occurs that I was shocked that this was what the filmmakers felt was necessary to bring their leading character to his final comeuppance. It is the type of moment that makes you roll your eyes in its obvious and absurd execution as your head yells at the stupidity of the character, and the way in which it is resolved is perhaps even more absurd. It is endlessly frustrating, and speaks to the lack of trust and intelligence with which this film treats its characters and its audience.