Remember yesterday when I talked about Thanksgiving Week? Today’s review is part of Thanksgiving Week as well, because Thanksgiving is about turkeys, and turkeys fly, and…yeah, I told you it’d be loosely based. Let’s move on.
It’s a little hard to imagine that the man behind the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump and Cast Away hasn’t directed a live-action film in 12 years, while staying very active in making movies. But that’s been the case for mo-cap marvel Robert Zemeckis, who’s spent the last decade-plus of his cinematic life with The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol – all performance-capture pictures that received mixed critical reaction. So it’s nice to see that in Flight, Zemeckis hasn’t lost his touch. Despite a few missteps, Zemeckis and a sensational cast, anchored by an award-worthy Denzel Washington performance, knock Flight out of the park.
Flight begins rather strikingly, with pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) waking up in a hotel room with alcohol, cocaine and a stark-naked flight attendant by his side. (By the way, “Whip Whitaker” may be the best character name I’ve heard in a while.) So there’s your character establishment. But Whip’s no ordinary party animal – he’s a heavy alcoholic and smoker who’s simply forgotten how to function without booze. That’s why, minutes later, Whip’s cheerily behind the wheel of a commercial plane with 100 passengers on board, drinking an orange juice/Smirnoff concoction and acting like nothing’s wrong. To his knowledge, nothing is – but soon enough, the plane starts failing, and only Whip knows how to save it. What follows is an impeccably-shot and incredibly tense sequence in which Whip has to save his plane from crashing and killing everyone. It’s around this time where you realize that Zemeckis hasn’t lost his touch – if anything, he’s refined it. The whole sequence is about as tense and thrilling a series of events as you’ll see in theatres.
From that point on, Flight turns into a different kind of tense. It follows Whitaker’s continuing downward spiral as he drinks himself deeper and deeper away from his problems. The pressure’s on Whip because his blood, drawn the night of the crash, revealed alcohol and drugs in his body. Though his lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, quietly very good) pulls some strings, Whitaker’s going to have to tell some lies along the way. He’s also going to have to temper his drinking and get his life back together, something he hopes to do alongside a recovering addict, Nicole, sensationally played by British actress Kelly Reilly. With so much at stake for Whip, one explosive scene after another follows suit.
It’s impressive to see how far Flight is willing to take Whitaker’s alcoholism. The film pulls no punches – it’s intense and often very dark. The picture’s only real lighthearted moments come from a pair of scenes featuring Whitaker’s drug-dealing friend, Harlan Mays (John Goodman, gleefully chewing up every ounce of the scenery), but it’s far from fun entertainment. Flight is superbly well-crafted dark drama, with Washington leading the way in a titanic performance. From everything we know about Denzel Washington, his off-screen persona couldn’t be any further away from the character of Whip, but it doesn’t matter. Washington crushes scenes and speeches that would come off as too heavy-handed with practically any other actor, planting himself firmly in the pilot’s seat for this year’s Best Actor Oscar.
Of course, Denzel’s got plenty of help. Reilly, who I’ve only seen as Watson’s wife from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, provides the strongest support. She takes a potentially generic part of the love interest/necessary recovering addict and makes it her own. You won’t believe for a second that she’s from England, not Georgia. (The state). Goodman is hellaciously funny in his short time onscreen, Cheadle provides a solid presence and James Badge Dale walks away with a single scene as a chain-smoking cancer patient. Veteran actors Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo provide stability, with Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie and Nadine Velaquez (fans of The League will enjoy her first scene) adding to the ensemble.
But this is as much Zemeckis’ show as it is Washington’s. There are certain urges that Zemeckis would do well to resist in future films. Chief among these is his occasionally ridiculous use of the most literal music possible. How about Under The Bridge and Sweet Jane for scenes where someone shoots up heroin? Or the Barenaked Ladies’ Alcohol to wake up Whitaker after a booze-filled night? It’s a shock that Eric Clapton’s Cocaine doesn’t make an appearance. The end of the film also gets a bit heavy-handed – but again, Washington anchors a performance that negates just about any faults with the script.