Director Robert Zemeckis has given us the latest “disaster” movie. In the case of Flight however, Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, this is less the Die Hard kind of “disaster” and more the Leaving Las Vegas type. Zemeckis is a well-known director, whose films have peppered the pop-culture lexicon for the past 35 years. He is a pioneer who took Marty McFly Back to the Future, taught Forrest to run in Forrest Gump, and broke new ground in live-action/animation film making with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. This year, Zemeckis showcases his craft with a strong character study of a disturbed pilot in Flight.
The intensity and effectiveness of Flight rests on the shoulders of its star, Denzel Washington, and it turns out Denzel Washington has some pretty strong shoulders. Washington dives head first into the character of pilot Whip Whitaker (a classic “pilot” name). Whitaker is a closeted addict, shrouded in denial. He routinely drinks to excess and uses stimulants to even out before flights. His lifestyle has cost him virtually any relationship or contact with his wife and son and has led him down the path of womanizing and heavy substance abuse as a desperate form of distraction.
Flight sets out to tell a story of moral ambiguity. Its protagonist is one who tests the ethical boundaries of the audience where at one moment we are rooting for him and the next, we are disgusted by him. This ambiguity fuels the pace and power of the film, and makes its 138 minute running time literally “fly” by. Washington is excellent, but Zemeckis is precise in his style, editing, and (yes, Pam and Eric) in his cinematography. Washington makes us see Whitaker’s struggle, but Zemeckis makes us feel it with expert use of camera movements, showing us a static sober Whitaker and a flowing, frantic intoxicated Whitaker. The crash sequence is compelling and exceeds expectations, regardless of its assumed predictability. These nuanced touches make Flight deeply engaging and provide for some harrowingly primal audience reaction.
Furthermore, Washington’s stellar performance is complemented at every turn with a pitch perfect supporting cast including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman (who is 2 for 2 with electric supporting roles this year with Flight and Argo). While the performances and the story are excellent, Flight does not accomplish all it is trying to do. A motif of religious purpose and providence feels crow barred in. Also, while excellent, the soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed in its relevance to what’s happening on the screen, which can be distracting. However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, Flight is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and director. A-