Flight * * * * 1/2
Director: Robert Zemeckis.
Screenplay: John Gatins.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, Peter Gerety, James Badge Dale, Adam Tomei.
It’s been a long wait (12 years to be exact) for director Robert Zemeckis to get back to making a live action film. His last was “Cast Away” in 2000 before he delved into computer generated animation with “The Polar Express“, “Beowolf” and “A Christmas Carol“. Despite his attempts to perfect the medium of animation those three film’s weren’t entirely successful. However, having him back on more ‘adult’ duties is a reminder of how good he can actually be.
During what may, or may not, be a technical fault with an airline passenger plane, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is forced into emergency procedures in order to land safely. The media hail him as a hero but there are troubling circumstances that lie underneath: Whip is an alcoholic and was intoxicated beforehand.
Within seconds of this film starting we are given a complete introduction to our protagonist Captain Whip Whitaker; there’s a naked woman in his bedroom and he proceeds to do a massive line of cocaine to straighten himself out before he flies a plane at 9am that same morning. Straight away, you know that this is a man that takes too many chances but it’s his cocksure arrogance and determination that has you captivated and convinced in him. We then move onto the flight itself where he helps himself to a few vodka miniatures before taking to the skies. With this strong introduction to Whitaker’s persona, what follows is an even stronger aircraft scene. It’s an intense and nail-biting set piece that will no doubt have you buckling up the next time you board an aeroplane.
After such a robust and persuasive opening you’d think that the rest of the film would suffer in comparison but Zemeckis deserves the utmost credit for slowing things down yet still managing to maintain interest. It progresses into a thoroughly engrossing character study that isn’t afraid to shed some light on the nature of addiction and the unravelling of a person in denial. Zemeckis is in no rush to tell his story which helps in establishing the feeling that this is a really solid piece of work. He also delicately handles the ethical conundrum of whether the sacrifice of a few lives is worth the saving of many. The film skilfully flitters back and forth between one ‘heroic’ action and the iniquity and irresponsibility of another; toying with the audience’s own moral judgement. Whitaker is a character that you’ll continually question but also one that can be identified with, and the ability of Zemeckis’ direction, John Gatins’ writing and a towering central performance from Denzel Washington make it all entirely believable. Washington has received a lot of critical praise from many corners here, and rightfully so. He absolutely commands the screen and without his presence or ability, this character could have crumbled in a lesser actors hands. There is strong competition amongst the Oscar nominated actors of 2012/13 but Washington is thoroughly deserving of his inclusion. The rest of the cast have little to do in comparison but still manage to add to the proceedings; Kelly Reilly’s addicted junkie adds further realism and although her relationship with Whitaker is rushed, it’s also somewhat believable. The corporate and legal side of things are dealt with admirably, by Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle and John Goodman’s character brings a welcome addition of comic relief. All-be-it, he seems to have wandered in from another movie.
As the denouement approaches, the film, admittedly, falls into conventional territory with a pending legal case and the unravelling of Whitaker’s affliction and personal demons brought to the forefront. This is unavoidable with the nature of the story but it’s still handled with tact and remains, nothing less, than absorbing and thoroughly rewarding.
It may succumb to storytelling conventions and some subplots don’t entirely fit but, on the whole, this is filmmaking of the highest order. After this, I can only hope that Robert Zemeckis doesn’t fall back into relative (animated) obscurity.