Flight is Robert Zemeckis’ grand return to the land of the living. He’s a filmmaker beloved for modern classics like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but this is his first live-action feature since he 2000, when he decided to swan-dive directly into the deepest trenches of the Uncanny Valley (a plunge that resulted in The Polar Express, Beowulf, and that movie about a twisted dystopia in which almost every human is a mutated version of Jim Carrey). To some extent, Flight picks up where Cast Away left off, as Zemeckis arrives back in the tactile world with another character-driven drama about a man who survives a dramatic (and horrifyingly visceral) plane crash — the big difference here is that Zemeckis puts us with a pilot as opposed to a passenger, introducing Whip Whitaker as a man so isolated by his troubles that he may as well have spent his entire adult life alone on a deserted island.
A few days after one-upping Sully Sullenberger by crash-landing a doomed commercial airliner and saving the lives of nearly 100 people, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is told that he’ll never have to pay for another drink for as long as he lives. If his behavior on the morning of the ill-fated flight is any indication, Whip may have just saved himself several million dollars. The man is some kind of genius — “high-functioning” doesn’t even begin to describe the sort of alcoholic whose office is 35,000 feet above sea level, working at a job so engaged with the imminence of mortality that his clients are referred to as “souls.” And it’s not like Whip is barely able to hold his own as a pilot, either. He’s an ace, one of the best in the world, the kind of guy who can reenact the aerial maneuvers fromTop Gun in an aircraft that can only drop bombs through an in-flight entertainment system. Whip’s ability to control a plane is starkly contrasted by his inability to cage his demons (which are much better rendered than anything seen in Beowulf). In the wake of Smashed and The Master’s fuel-guzzling Freddie Quell, Whip is a think-piece waiting to happen. It’s explicitly clear that his alcoholism didn’t directly contribute to the catastrophic circumstances from which he miraculously spared the lives of his passengers — but just because Whip can survive his own self-destruction doesn’t mean that it’s a good way to live.
Outside of a harrowing marquee sequence, Flight is a relatively small film. Zemeckis seems to have earned a newfound appreciation for the tactile pleasures of the real world, his camera content to linger on evocative sets rich with the illusion of physical history, or to barrel down on the deep grooves beneath Denzel Washington’s eyes. The movie’s decidedly human scale is supported by its reasonable narrative reach, which splits its focus between Whip’s personal troubles and his impending hearing with the NTSB, at which he’ll be required to testify under oath as to his condition at the time of the crash (he was coked up, and fresh off two screwdrivers). A burgeoning romance with a buxom substance abuser named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) helps to illustrate the destructive force of Whip’s affliction, while corporate cronies (Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood) help to ensure that the NTSB will judge the airline to be at fault for the disaster (in an accident, someone always has to be held responsible).
Unfortunately, Flight is completely drunk on its own clumsy metaphors. In the vein of My Life as a House comes My Life as a Nose-Diving Plane, the broken hull of the passenger jet serving as a belabored proxy for Whip’s busted life as an amazing piece of machinery that’s cracked apart at the seams. The script, which writer John Gatins has been gestating for upwards of a decade, is structurally sound but as subtle as a plane crash slamming into the steeple of a church (narrowly avoiding the baptizement that’s naturally underway during the moment of impact). It’s improper to hold anyone’s past credits against them, but Flight certainly feels like another cartoon from the guy responsible for Real Steel and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story.
At times a rich study of control and the extent to which the things we use can use us up, Flight is as blunt as it is perceptive. Cringe-inducing exchanges (the scene in which Whip meets his co-pilot’s wife, being the worst offender) litter the screenplay, and Zemeckis does everything in his power to exacerbate Gatins’ bias for browbeating, transforming a hotel minibar into the HAL 9000 and blaring classic rock tunes like they’re original plot-songs (John Goodman’s introduction as an enabling force of comic-relief is layered beneath The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” and that’s one of the film’s most opaque musical cues). The film hits you over the head so repeatedly that you’ll be tempted to check if things are raining down from the overhead luggage compartment, but such things are to be expected from a character study that’s designed to carry the tonnage of an Oscar campaign.
But Flight is sabotaged by its hokey strokes precisely because it so honestly and sensitively portrays its deepening moral dilemmas. Some of the most nuanced work of Denzel Washington’s career is lost amidst the scattered debris of the film’s generic tendencies — his restrained but stellar performance vividly entreats us to a man who is at war with the value of the truth, and the extent to which the concept only makes sense when considered in multitudes. But the script from which that character was birthed creates a world where truth appears to be immediately obvious, especially during times of crisis.
As if surrounding Whip with exclusively one-dimensional characters were insufficiently reductive (of the supporting cast, only Reilly rises above the material, delivering a breakthrough performance), Zemeckis repeatedly pushes in on a single tear rolling down Washington’s cheek, or mutes a beautiful take by cutting to a line of cocaine as an insert shot, suggesting that Whip’s problems are simple and self-contained. Those might read like quibbles, but such dull tactics inspired pockets of giggling from the press and industry crowd at Flight’s New York Film Festival unveiling, pointing towards the tonal unease that prevents an otherwise refreshingly adult drama from leaving much of a mark. Washington conjures a compellingly sympathetic pariah from a deceptively complex character (we’re in his shoes while at the same time gawking from afar at how he wears them), but even he is powerless to save the movie from itself, an impression that’s hammered home by a final beat as fatally ill-judged as any found at the movies this year.
Whip Whitaker. He’s got the alliteration of a superhero in disguise, and — as our introduction to him makes clear — one’s impression of him is certainly transformed by his uniform. Bruce Wayne needs a whole utility built to get the job done, but The Whip only requires a steady intake of his magic potion. His origin story evokes Unbreakable, another film in which the hero’s superhuman strength invited his own ruin, but Flight pivots on the same ideas to deliver a movie that’s more entertaining and richly human in almost every respect. If only Zemeckis were able to tell Whip’s story with the same control that his hero struggles to wrest for himself, this could have been a ride worth taking. Enjoy the peanuts.
Note: Flight screened as part of the 2012 New York Film Festival. It officially hits theaters on November 2.