PLOT: An airline pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is hailed as a hero when he saves a plane-load of passengers during a flight gone terribly wrong. The only problem, Whip is a hardcore alcoholic and habitual drug user- who was under the influence when he landed the plane. When his drug use comes to light after a toxicology report, Whip finds himself face-to-face not only with his own addictions, but also the very real chance that he could go to jail- despite his heroic deeds.
REVIEW: FLIGHT marks director Robert Zemeckis’ long-awaited return to live action film-making after his decade-long obsession with motion-capture technology. One thing is clear within the opening minutes of FLIGHT- Zemeckis is not playing it safe. The movie opens with a hung-over Washington cursing out his ex-wife over the phone, while his hook-up from the night before (MY NAME IS EARL’s Nadine Velazquez) walks around entirely nude- before they both stop to do a line of coke. A pretty heavy-start to a movie directed by a guy best known from FORREST GUMP and BACK TO THE FUTURE- but working from a script by John Gatins (REAL STEEL and COACH CARTER)- he’s not pulling any punches.
While a character-study through and through, the early crash sequence- so prominently featured in the trailer, is as ambitious as any set-piece Zemeckis has ever filmed. It’s certainly one of the most horrific, pull-no-punches depiction of a crash-landing I’ve ever seen- and it clearly signals that Zemeckis hasn’t lost a beat since CAST-AWAY. After that, the movie settles into the drama it’s being sold as, offering star Denzel Washington (who’s rarely off-camera) his juiciest role in years. Icon that he is, Washington has mostly stuck to middle-of-the road thrillers lately, but FLIGHT puts him through the wringer in a way we haven’t seen since at least MAN ON FIRE.
Whip Whitaker seems tailor-made for Denzel. Even when coked to the gills, Whip is still a charming, likable fellow- and even a competent one. Still, he’s a damaged soul and his struggle with addiction is portrayed in the same kind of no-holds-barred way we’ve seen in movies like CLEAN & SOBER and the recent SMASHED. Whether or not Whip ends up in prison or not isn’t really what the film hinges on. Rather, the question is whether or not he’ll be able to acknowledge his own addiction, which he utterly refuses to do- blaming no one for his actions but himself, but still feeling that he can handle the booze and coke. Being that this is Denzel, we almost believe him. Almost.
While Washington utterly dominates the film, the supporting parts are all quite sturdy, with Kelly Reilly standing out as the strung-out junkie Washington befriends when they end up recuperating in the same hospital. Don Cheadle brings gravitas to his part as the attorney trying to keep Whip out of jail, while barely containing his contempt for the man- while Bruce Greenwood is rock solid as the pilot’s union rep who consistently turns a blind eye to his friend’s downward spiral. And- once again, John Goodman is a stand-out- this time playing Denzel’s drug-dealer/coke buddy, and like ARGO, he almost walks away with the film every time he’s on-screen.
Despite running a lengthy 140 minutes, Zemeckis keeps FLIGHT moving at a quick pace, making it feel much shorter than it is, and keeping it fully engrossing throughout. The climax, featuring Denzel’s cross-examination by Melissa Leo’s incisive and cold attorney is a nail-biter, even if- by this point, it’ll be obvious how it’s going to play out. My only real beef with FLIGHT is that the epilogue feels a little spoon-fed, and ultimately tacked on, in an effort to give the film a sense of closure it doesn’t really need. Also- some of the musical choices seem a little too obvious, such as Joe Cocker’s ‘Feeling Alright’ playing anytime Denzel dips into the coke, or ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ being cued up once Goodman shows up- as if to warn us that he’s up to no good.
Still- those are pretty minor issues, and while they struck me as a tad obvious, that’s probably just a question of taste (or perhaps cynicism) on my part. In the end, Zemeckis isn’t making the gritty Sundance version of FLIGHT, but the big-budget, star-studded version. As such, he’s still delivered a ballsy and thoroughly entertaining piece of work, and one which could very well get some Oscar love this winter.