Written by John Gatins
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle and John Goodman
Flight deck: Southjet 227, uh, did you say inverted?
It has been twelve years since Robert Zemeckis last directed a film that featured real people. Well, to be fair, the last three films he made before his latest, FLIGHT, had real people in them; Zemeckis just had art departments paint over them after the actors performed in front of green screens. This is motion capture, which does exactly what it says, capture motion, and not necessarily emotion at the same time. Many complained that his films had grown cold as a result. With FLIGHT, he says what he has to with plenty of feeling but all this reality seems to have thrown off his confidence somewhat.
FLIGHT does two things very well. First of all, it gives Denzel Washington his first truly great role in at least five years. Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot with a problem. In fact, he actually has several problems, from drinking to drugs to a troubled past that includes an estranged wife and son. When we meet Whip, he is pretty wrecked from his night of excessive drinking and sexual adventure with one of his flight attendant co-workers (Nadine Valesquez). After doing a line of coke to perk himself up for another day on the job, he struts down the street, aviators conveniently covering his glassy eyes, as though he has everything well under control. By the time his plane starts plummeting out of the sky, he is not so certain about that anymore.
This is the second thing that FLIGHT gets just right. With 102 souls on board, Whip’s plane begins to nosedive shortly before reaching its destination due to a technical malfunction. This catastrophe is intense and moving. While some panic, some triumph and find bravery they clearly never knew they had. It is spectacular to behold on screen and as soon as the plane hits the ground, the questions start. What is to blame for this tragedy? Or rather who? Both we the audience and Captain Whitaker know full well that the reason that plane went down is because of an equipment malfunction. That said, the same parties are also well aware of the fact that it is truly a miracle that Whip was able to land that plan as intoxicated as he was.
Whip’s realization that he may have a serious problem is now all he can think of. His strut has rightfully become a shameful shuffle and Washington captures the push and pull of his addiction brilliantly. Alcohol is the problem but unfortunately for him, and for so many others dealing with similar addictions, it is also, at least in his mind, the solution to alleviate his problems. The cycle is vicious and made very real by a very powerful performance but Zemeckis, along with the help of screenwriter, John Gatins, distracts from it with manipulative tangents about God and unnecessary supporting characters. In the end, like the character he plays, Washington cannot stop FLIGHT from crashing, but his unexpected maneuvering minimizes the overall damage upon impact.