After nearly thirteen years of noodling around in the uncanny valley of motion capture, director Robert Zemeckis — the whiz-bang pioneer behind the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the cutting-edge hybridization of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the Oscar juggernaut “Forrest Gump” — returns to live-action filmmaking with “Flight,” a movie which essentially asks the question, what if Sully Sullenberger, the hero pilot from the Miracle on the Hudson crash, was a really bad dude?
Denzel Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, who after ingesting a truly heroic amount of alcohol and drugs, goes on to (mostly) safely land a jumbo jet that encounters a mid-air emergency. Will he be able to clean up his act for the investigation? Or for himself? Or not at all? And, the real question: Will anyone want to watch the Oscar-winning titan, stripped of his megawatt charisma, play such skuzzy, unlikable dirtbag? Let’s find out in the Pros and Cons of “Flight.”
PRO: The Crash Sequence
Zemeckis is one of the greatest directors of action or suspense set pieces. Often, when citing the lack of imagination and stakes in modern action sequences, I point to Zemeckis as someone who would make it very, very hard for a character to reach his or her desired goals (think of the climactic lightning sequence in “Back to the Future,” or the second half of “Contact”). Well, the crash sequence in “Flight” might be his crowning achievement — a sequence so white-knuckle in both its technical and emotional intensity that you might break out in a sweat just watching it. What makes the sequence so amazing isn’t just its technological prowess, although there is that too, but how he really makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit with Denzel, trying desperately to save the souls on board. When the plane corkscrews and he starts flying upside-down, the scene becomes transcendent and dreamlike (and this is before the plane “lands” near a church, the wing clipping the pitched roof of the church). It might be the most heart-stopping fifteen minutes of any movie all year.
CON: The Rest of the Movie
The problem with “Flight” is that there is nothing, either emotionally or set-piece-wise, that can compare with that crash sequence. The movie starts with a fireworks show that takes your breath away and leaves you in a dazed state of awe, and it’s followed by a bunch of small human moments that end up not adding up to much. Some of them work (Washington’s unlikely romantic relationship with a recovering drug addict played by the always-wonderful Kelly Reilly, works despite its hoary set-up) but the continued struggle with the demons of addiction gives the movie a boozy ebb and flow, and the fact that it’s all happening inside Washington doesn’t make for too many dramatically fulfilling instances that we can actually, you know, see. There’s a brief moment, right towards the end, where the movie regains its swagger, but it’s lost almost immediately, and the last ten minutes or so are filled with outrageously maudlin melodrama that almost crashes the entire movie.
As always, Mr. Washington is impeccable. And it’s really great to see him stretch a little bit after playing the moustache-twirling villain opposite the hunky Ryan Reynolds in this year’s awful high-concept actioner “Safe House.” From the opening moments of the film, when we see him awake in a stupor next to a beautiful, naked woman, you can tell that this is a very different Denzel. Be thankful. While so much of the character’s struggles are internal, he also does some pretty amazing physical things with his character. It’s not exactly Joaquin turning himself into a human pretzel in “The Master,” but it is still impressive. Denzel is a big guy and you feel the struggle on and in every inch of him, pulling him in a million different directions at once. Even the script’s more uneasy moments, like that final bit of toxic schmaltz, seem more palpable thanks to Washington’s mere presence.
PRO: The Supporting Cast
While this movie is firmly anchored by Denzel, he’s surrounded himself with a constellation of amazing character actors, who all turn in fine performances. Besides the beautiful and talented Reilly (doing well with an American accent, I might add), there’s Bruce Greenwood as an old pal of Washington’s who is trying to aid him through the investigation; Don Cheadle as a slick lawyer working for Greenwood; Melissa Leo as a prosecutor; and, stealing every scene he lumbers through, John Goodman, as Denzel’s drug dealer. Goodman in particular gives the movie some much-needed pep, especially when it borders on the oppressively morose. When he makes an appearance in the third act, you kind of want to clap. Go ahead. It’s a natural high. The fact that it’s Goodman’s second Oscar-worthy scene-stealing supporting performance this fall (after “Argo”) makes it even more amazing.
CON: The Soundtrack
Firstly, everyone (including Scorsese) should be banned from using The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” ever again. Like. Ever. Again. It’s just done. Forever. We need to move on as a nation. Otherwise, the soundtrack to “Flight” features a bunch of songs that are so blatantly on the nose that I can remember giggling during the screening at the New York Film Festival. Sometimes it works, like when Joe Cocker’s “Feelin Alright” is used after a sequence where Washington regains stability thanks to some well-placed drugs, but even that is a stretch. We get it — these are drug and drink anthems. But they’re unnecessary and cliché. You can do better, Zemeckis!
PRO: How Clearly Personal This Is
I talked to Denzel earlier this year and asked him about “Flight” and he said that the story was deeply personal to Zemeckis, who has been attending AA meetings for alcohol and substance abuse, since the mid-eighties. Watching “Flight,” you can tell how personal this movie is, and that he really put all he had into it. The visual inventiveness has been toned down to a palpable amount and a laser-like focus has been placed on character and human behavior. It was fun to watch Zemeckis play with his newfangled toys for the past decade, but even better to have him back in a humanistic place.
PRO: The Crash Sequence
Wait, did I already talk about this? Because it’s really, really good.