The most memorable movies made by Robert Zemeckis combine old-fashioned storytelling, technical sophistication, and either elements of social satire (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), existential musings (Contact, Cast Away) or a mixture of the two (Forrest Gump); however, the ‘technical’ stuff has overshadowed his recent work. In fact, looking back over Zemeckis’ filmography, one might be surprised to note that trend did not begin with his 3D motion-capture projects (The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), but with What Lies Beneath – the director’s Hitchockian homage (ripoff?) released in 2000.
Zemeckis returns to pure live-action filmmaking with Flight, which also marks the first non-action/thriller to star two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington since he directed himself in the 2007 inspirational true-story drama The Great Debaters. As much excitement as there is among cinephiles to see both the director and actor getting back to their roots, so to speak, there’s good reason to wonder: have their basic dramatic skills grown a tad rusty over the past few years?
Thankfully, the answer is “no.” Flight, at times, threatens to slide off the rails into the realm of implausibility and preachy melodrama, but the mature direction from Zemeckis – coupled with a raw, yet understated, performance from Washington – prevents that from happening. There are traces of Forrest Gump and Cast Away‘s DNA in the storytelling; yet, thanks to a cast populated by seasoned actors, the characters (most of which are residents of the South) feel less cartoony than in Gump. Moreover, Flight confronts the concept of divine intervention more explicitly than Cast Away, yet manages to feel somewhat less long-winded.
Flight tells the story of Whip Whitaker (Washington), an airline pilot who pulls off a miraculous crash-landing after a mid-flight catastrophe, managing to save the lives of all but six of the 102 living souls onboard in the process. Media outlets hail him as a genuine American hero, but Whip shirks the limelight during an ongoing NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation into the cause of the accident. Is there some lurid truth behind what really happened on that plane, waiting to be uncovered? Well, the trailers for Flight would have you believe so.
In reality, the film isn’t at all the “action-packed mystery thriller” described in the official synopsis, but a mixture of character study and morality play. The very first scene introduces Whip as a doughy, incorrigible, fellow with a penchant for boozing and sniffing cocaine. He’s practically a laundry list of undesirable traits (divorced, often-inebriated, non-committal), yet he’s also an incredible pilot with charisma and moral fiber – sometimes, even when under the influence. Whip is a character that stretches credibility, for sure, but Washington makes him far more believable than your average cliché bad-man-needing-redemption or onscreen alcoholic.
The utterly-terrifying flight/crash sequence during the opening act is executed with impeccable precision (airplane-phobes, you’ve been warned), but also makes it all too apparent to us whether or not Whip’s behavior contributed to the malfunction. However, the script from John Gatins (Coach Carter, Real Steel) gets a bit heavy-handed there, as it calls for cross-cuts to a separate storyline about a drug-addled woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who simultaneously ‘crashes’ after her latest heroin injection. Nicole is presented as a suitable foil for Whip, but her subsequent arc isn’t as compelling or interesting as his; in other words, the amount of time devoted to establishing her character ultimately feels somewhat unnecessary.
Gatins’ script explores both the importance and implications of happenstance and ‘unexplainable coincidences’ in Whip’s life, often in a very unsubtle fashion. What allows these developments to work so well is Zemeckis’ recognition of when to play a beat for comical effect, serious profundity, or some combination of the two. Most of these moments succeed at being on-the-nose, yet sincere and heartfelt (most notably, a hospital scene where James Badge Dale (The Grey) cameos as a rambling cancer patient), while others cross the line into cynicism – such as a bit where Whip visits his recovering co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) only to unwittingly learn that he and his wife are big on Jesus.
The remainder of the cast, as mentioned before, further assist in keeping Flight grounded (no pun intended). For starters, Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek 2) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies) deliver multi-faceted performances as Whip’s old friend and a hired lawyer – who bend over backwards and jump multiple hurdles in order to prevent him from going to jail for flying while intoxicated. Tamar Tunie (Law & Order) likewise hands in a solid performance as Whip’s religious, yet empathetic, co-worker, while Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) once again manages to impress – despite her appearing in just one scene near the conclusion.
However, the scene-stealer here is easily John Goodman as Harling Mays, Whip’s hilariously-crude and undignified drug supplier who enjoys listening to “Sympathy for the Devil” on his iPod (get it?). He’s an unabashedly colorful addition that ends up not feeling at all out of place in the film’s world, thanks to how Goodman plays him – as the sort of ridiculous guy you can imagine meeting in real-life.
It’s through a combination of down-to-earth performances (with Washington as the anchor keeping them aground) and Zemeckis’ sturdy guiding hand that both makes Flight an engaging viewing experience and prevents Gatins’ script from feeling too melodramatic or forceful. Once again, it ought to be emphasized that this film does unfold slowly following the visceral spectacle of the first act, giving rise to a funny, touching, and occasionally-shaky tale, with some sermonizing thrown in for good measure. However, as a whole, it makes for a recommendable time at the movies.
Here is the official trailer for Flight:
Flight is now playing in theaters around the U.S. It is Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.