It’s been twelve years since Robert Zemeckis made Cast Away, and the director has opted to spend the last decade avoiding live action and experimenting with motion capture technology in films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol along with producing the biggest flop in Disney history, the 3D disaster Mars Needs Moms. But with his newest film, Flight, Zemeckis proves that he still has a great eye for character, drama, and action, and even after stepping away from the arena for so long, this old dog still has a few tricks left for us.
Flight centers on Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), an alcoholic pilot who, in the opening moments of the movie, drinks, smokes, and does cocaine immediately after waking up and immediately before piloting a jet from Orlando to Atlanta. He’s a functioning addict, though, and as you undoubtedly know if you’re reading this, Whitaker is able to crash land his plane in an open field after some trouble in the cockpit. In the hospital, he meets a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and they begin a relationship on their road to recovery.
But Whitaker isn’t too interested in kicking his habit, and his addiction fuels his every move. Even when he’s visited by a friend (Bruce Greenwood) and a criminal lawyer (Don Cheadle) who reveal that the National Transportation Safety Board has a report stating alcohol was in his system during the time of the crash, Whip refuses to quit, content with knowing that he was the only person capable of pulling such a daring move in the sky that saved a hundred lives, even with the fact that he was under the influence at the time. Almost all of the film deals with the aftermath of the crash and Whitaker’s behavior in relation to the incident, and Zemeckis deftly tells the story and to guide some excellent performances out of his actors.
More of a pure character study than an action thriller, Flight has one big set piece (which, by the way, doesn’t come close to Joe Carnahan’s amazing sequence earlier this year in The Grey) and then settles into more of a character driven piece akin to Smashed, the Mary Elizabeth Winstead/Aaron Paul alcoholism story the premiered at Sundance. But whereas Winstead plays a likeable character in her film, Washington is abrasive, smug, and stubborn, making it not quite as easy to pull for him. But that conflict is at the heart of the film: does he deserve to be rooted for, or is he so far gone that we should write him off? Washington’s performance expertly toes that line, and he delivers some of the best work of his long career.
The supporting performances are all solid as well, including standout work from Kelly Reilly as the addict female lead. She’s best known as Watson’s wife in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, but she’s not much more than a throwaway character in those movies; here, she’s given plenty to chew on and stands toe to toe with proven vets of the big screen. Greenwood and Cheadle are good, Melissa Leo shows up for a few minutes at the end, and James Badge Dale (who coincidentally starred in The Grey) is mesmerizing as a cancer patient who has a brief but powerful cameo. But it’s John Goodman who really steals the show. He plays Whip’s friend, a fast-talking whirlwind of energy named Harling Mays who films Whip’s naked ass with a handheld video camera while he visits him in the hospital, making dirty jokes in front of nurses, and bringing booze, cocaine, and “stroke mags” to Whip. He’s only in the film for about 15 minutes, but as with most of Goodman’s performances, he leaves a big impression.
If you’re looking for one of the best films of the year, you may want to lower expectations. There are music choices that are a bit on the nose (“Under the Bridge” while an addict eyes a needle, etc.) and some religious talk that aims for poignancy but doesn’t quite click, but the performances and direction are still worth buckling in to see. If nothing else, it has the best inverted airplane sequence since Top Gun (the VHS of which can be seen, also inverted, in Whip’s farmhouse halfway through the movie), and though Flight’s slower pacing doesn’t quite feel the need for speed, Washington’s character sure does…and the film is that much more entertaining because of it. Until next time…