Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Denzel Washington, Nadine Valezquez
Released: February 1st 2013
Denzel Washington defines magnetism. The guy produces this aura that attracts audiences to him no matter what character he is playing. No matter if his character might even be the most repulsive person we’ve ever met. In the new film from Robert Zemeckis (his first live action film since Cast Away) Mr. Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker who may not necessarily be the most repulsive guy we’ve ever seen grace the screen, but regardless, has a full plate of issues. While the advertising for Flight has made the film seem like an interesting, if not mystery-steeped production that deals with what I anticipated climbing to a dramatic final courtroom sequence actually turns out to be a serious yet nuanced film about the struggles and downfalls that come along with any kind of addiction.
We are of course teased with the fact that Whitaker was intoxicated while piloting the plane in the trailer, but we are unaware that this is where the heart of the story is going to lie. Though the overall film is less than I expected it to be I cannot deny that I felt a certain intrigue throughout. While Flight is a little too long and sometimes can become a little too preachy when its momentum begins to slow in the third quarter you never want to give up on the film because Washington brings such presence and pain to Whitaker that he makes you not want to give up on him. Even as it seems his chances are bleak and that the man would do anything to continue avoiding and ignoring those in his life who want to help him, we hold out hope as an audience. The film is captivating as a character study with a great performance at the center holding it together. The film crashes when trying to escape its dark territory.
It is clear from the very first scene in Flight that this is a different kind of monster that we are tackling than maybe we expected to encounter. Denzel wakes up in a hotel bedroom after a night of careless drinking next to a much younger, naked woman. He then proceeds to take a sip from every alcohol container that remains in the room with a drop left in it and to clear his head follows them up with a line of cocaine. This of course all before he boards a plane to pilot it from Florida to Georgia. His crew knows him, except for the inexperienced young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) who seems hesitant to trust the seasoned pro. His companion in the opening scene is a stewardess that is using Whip as much as he is using her. Whitaker boards the plane and pilots it, taking into his responsibility every person on board that plane with little regard as he doesn’t seem to care at all for his physical state. It is an interesting route to take to dissect such an issue as addiction. A perplexing set of circumstances to surround your character with and at the same time give your audience a good amount of things to take into account when attempting to figure out what will determine the true character of our protagonist who is his own antagonist.
The film runs an unnecessary two hours and eighteen minutes causing the second half of the film to lose much of its momentum and instead begin to drag under the weight of the constant ways in which Whitaker abuses himself by not letting anyone into his world. A world even on the other side of things we know very little about. We know the guy has a drinking problem, we know he has been divorced and barely sees his child. We are led to believe he had a good, strong father figure in his life yet we know nothing of what drove him to this addiction. You could blame it on divorce but that seemed more a cause than a resulting factor. For all the time spent going through the motions of dipping further into addiction the memory of the middle part of the film seem as hazy to us as they likely felt to Captain Whitaker.
Zemeckis, like his leading man, has a draw to him. With that power he was not only able to pull in Washington to ground this shaky film with a solid performance but also in the wonderful supporting cast. As the only guy in Whitaker’s court once the news breaks about his intoxication levels, underrated character actor Bruce Greenwood does a fine job here. As does Don Cheadle who, with less screen time than I imagined, gives a commanding turn as an attorney for the airline demonstrating just how easily a seemingly open and shut case can be swung any way he so desires. Cheadle is a great actor who, like Washington, brings a presence to every role no matter the moral compass of his character. I would have liked to have seen more interaction between these two but I can only hope they became good enough friends here to work with one another again soon.
The man to mention here though, who in two short scenes nearly steals the entire movie, is John Goodman. As he did just under a month ago in Argo Goodman proves his personality and range is just as big as his physical being. Here, he plays Harling Mays, who is Whitaker’s go-to-guy for drugs, boos, pretty much anything the man needs to get him back on his feet and going. He is an enabler to the fullest but he only pops up so sporadically that we pass no judgement on the guy and he is so much fun, firing off one zinger after the next that we can understand why any person on the planet would want to be friends with the guy. There is also a good amount of time devoted to Kelly Reilly’s character Nicole, a recovering addict herself who crosses paths with Whitaker int he hospital. Whitaker is attracted to the beaten down soul the woman shares and likely sees his same struggles within her. The relationship between the two feels somewhat forced at times, but to the films credit it is clear that Washington’s character is reaching out for anyone to be around that will put up with him. He needs a constant and Nicole ends up being much more than he could have ever asked for. A turn not completely unexpected but not played as overly-sentimental as other moments that could have used such restraint.
While Flight was not everything I wanted to be, it is by no means a bad or disengaging film. I was wrapped up in the plight of Captain Whitaker from beginning to end even when the narrative seemed to stray. The film owes this engaging capability to that opening sequence they showed a little too much of in the previews. In those moments when Whitaker guides the faulty aircraft down to as gentle a landing as he possibly could while at the same time conducting everyone around him to contribute to making the inevitable impact as positive as it possibly could be. It is a wonder, truly the way the landing of the plane is captured on screen and Zemeckis does a wonderful job of keeping his camera in all the right places when it could have easily resorted to big effects shots to the exterior of the plane. We see some of those later by way of cell phone footage from an onlooker but in the moment we are never taken out of the head of Whitaker and how focused he is. How he stays in control, despite everything we know that should be contributing to him losing his focus and failing to save everyone on board. Whitaker does the complete opposite but it is not this act that defines him but everything he did leading up to that moment that will cause his world to crumble. Zemeckis and Washington both have a clear idea of who their main character is and each does their job in peeling back the layers that make up this complicated yet mysterious guy who can seem to stand so tall in a created persona but fall so far on a personal one. Washington gives a great performance, one of his best no doubt, and his supporting cast is nearly flawless but it is the components of their story that give way to more to be filled in, of opportunities missed rather than the allure of more to be desired.
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