Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Melissa Leo
Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has spent more than a decade in self-imposed exile, retreating from live-action filmmaking to focus on motion-capture-focused computer animation. That dream, however, ended for Zemeckis when his last two efforts, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, a pointless, unnecessary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, and MARS NEEDS MOM, a science-fiction/action-adventure, failed to draw in moviegoers in sufficient numbers to justify their oversized budgets. While Zemeckis only produced MARS NEEDS MOMS, it bombed badly. But computer animation’s loss is live-action’s gain or so it seemed when Zemeckis signed on to direct FLIGHT, his first live-action film in a dozen years. A star vehicle for two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, FLIGHT succeeds only sporadically, due primarily to Washington, his back-up crew (i.e., supporting cast), and the first-act airliner crash that serves as a reminder of Zemeckis’ often dazzling technical skills.
When we meet Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, he’s less than two hours away from piloting a commercial airliner from Orlando, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. A night of drinking, drugs, and partying with a flight attendant, Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), has done little, if anything, to diminish Whitaker’s appetite for alcohol or drugs. Putting on his swagger with his pilot’s uniform, Whitaker strides to the airliner and, once inside the airplane, makes sure to add vodka to his orange juice. FLIGHT leaves little doubt that Whip is an alcoholic, albeit a functioning alcoholic, capable of imbibing massive amounts of alcohol and drugs and still carry out his duties as a pilot. When the airplane encounters storm-related turbulence, Whitaker calmly finds a literal break in the clouds. When, however, an equipment malfunction occurs moments later, the plane goes into a dive.
Only Whitaker’s calm, focused thinking saves the day. Ninety-six passengers survive a crash, but six, including two crewmembers, don’t. Per federal regulations, representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), make an appearance at the hospital where Whitaker recovers from his non-life-threatening injuries. The media hail Whitaker as a hero. Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), the head of the pilot’s union and Whitaker’s one-time friend, steps in to protect Whitaker from a potentially damaging toxicology report, bringing in the union’s attorney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), to work his lawyerly magic and suppress the report. He does, sending FLIGHT along a slightly different narrative path. The NTSB hearing doesn’t happen until the third act. Instead, FLIGHT focuses on Whitaker, his alcoholism, and the consequences, past, present, and future, of his alcoholism.
FLIGHT also takes a turn into dysfunctional relationship drama. Whitaker meets Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a recovering drug addict, at the hospital. An awkward exchange on a staircase improbably turns into romance. Given his past, a past that includes a broken marriage and an estranged teenage son, Whitaker’s relationship with Nicole seems doomed (one or both will relapse inevitably, possibly dragging the other member of the relationship with them). As Zemeckis and his screenwriter, John Gatins (REAL STEEL, COACH CARTER), weave the Whitaker and Nicole’s relationship with the impending NTSB hearing, it becomes clear that the proverbial “moment of truth” awaits Whitaker, a moment every alcoholic or substance abuser faces and either accepts or rejects until, inevitably, the moments run out.
Unfortunately, once Whitaker pilots the airliner into a controlled crash, FLIGHT turns into a dreary, repetitive character drama, with practically each scene turning on whether Whitaker will stay sober or break down and drink again, excusable in a relatively short, 90-minute film, but less so in a film that clocks in at an over-indulgent two hours and twenty minutes. Zemeckis attempts to offset the ever-encroaching tedium by periodically inserting Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whitaker’s verbose drug dealer. Harling’s more caricature than character, but he’s nonetheless welcome, especially considering FLIGHT’s ever-diminishing narrative or thematic rewards. Aside from the admittedly bravado crash sequence, FLIGHT contains little, actually no, physical action and with a script that tantalizingly suggests Whitaker’s alcoholism, for all its deleterious effects on Whitaker’s personal and professional lives, actually helps more than it hinders, perhaps by taking the edge off his justifiable fear of death and allowing Whitaker to focus and concentrate on the moment.