Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film in over a decade, closes the 50th New York Film Festival, and features another Oscar worthy performance from Denzel Washington.
Robert Zemeckis may have spent over a decade, fine tuning the motion capture process for cinema, but the director’s forte is still live action filmmaking. Audiences tend to identify more with characters played by flesh and blood actors, like Academy Award winner Denzel Washington in Zemeckis’ Flight, a tale of substance abuse and emotional disconnect wrapped within an investigation into an airline crash. Throughout their careers, both director and star have demonstrated an attraction to stories that examine the human condition. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Zemeckis hasn’t collaborated with Washington sooner, helming three phenomenally successful films starring the actor’s Philadelphia co-star Tom Hanks instead.
Promotion for Flight suggests that the film is a daring rescue story, similar to the real life crash of US Airways Flight 1549, where Chelsey Sullenberger successfully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in January of 2009. John Gatins’ screenplay actually originates as far back as 1999, after he served as a technical adviser on a “military themed epic”. The circumstances Gatins created involving the incident at the center of the story are original and impressive, but it’s the internal struggles of Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker which are the heart of the film.
On a rainy morning, Whitaker and a rookie pilot (Brian Geraghty), fly the fictional Southjet Airline 227 out of Orlando, Florida for a forty-eight minute flight to Georgia. With only twenty-minutes until arrival, something goes horribly wrong, as the plane unexpectedly goes into a dive which Whip is unable to stop. The former Navy pilot uses his experience and instinct to make a rather unconventional maneuver that enables the 50-ton plane to glide without its engines and crash in a field not far from the airport. After regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, Whip learns that of the 102 souls aboard the flight, only six perished, including two crew members and he is being hailed as a hero. But of course, there’s a problem.
Since six people were killed, it is procedure for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate whether negligent homicide was a factor. Someone has to pay and though the crash may have been due to mechanical error by the plane’s manufacturer, things don’t look good for Whip being that alcohol and cocaine have turned up in his toxicology report. Truth is, Whip’s an addict. The worse kind. The night before the flight, not only was he boozing in a hotel room with lovely stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velasquez), but he did a few bumps of cocaine in the morning just to to get himself in gear. In Whip’s corner is old Naval buddy and Airline Union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) who brings in company lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). Reunited with his Devil in a Blue Dress co-star, Washington shares a relationship with Cheadle not much different from that of Easy Rollins and Mouse. Cheadle’s Lang is protective of Whip, not in the murderous sense, but attempts to shield his client from those out to persecute him, unaware that the man needs the greatest protection from himself. Lang already has a game plan for how he’ll handle the NTSB and their inquiries, but the one unreliable factor is Whip, who no matter how much he promises, still can’t stop boozing.
Washington makes the difficult task of appearing in every scene in the film look easy with his mesmerizing performance as a man burdened by guilt and what fate may have in store for him. It’s never fully explored just what demons plague Whip, but he is certainly suffering from an inability to connect with others. There’s also the fact that he’s become so good at hiding his addiction and lying to people’s faces that the biggest lie is the one he tells himself. Everyone from Charlie, to Lang and even Whip’s ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) have tried to help him, but he’s ended up alienating just about anyone who’s cared about him, including his bitter and angry teenage son (Justin Martin). Whip’s only friend, isn’t really even a friend, but a more of a bad influence, his dealer and confident Harling Mays, wonderfully played by John Goodman. Goodman appears in only three scenes in the picture, but his comedic energy and enthusiasm give the proceedings a shot in the arm, keeping them from becoming melodramatic.
Surprisingly, much of the promotion for Flight ignores the presence of actress Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a former photographer and heroin user whom Whip meets in the hospital as she struggles to stay clean. The pair turn out to be kindred spirits and for a time, she becomes a pet project for Whip, who for some reason wants to help her get on the road to recovery more than himself. Reilly’s ‘s relationship with Washington unfortunately doesn’t have as much of an impact on the story as it should or is as memorable as that with other supporting characters. One notable performance is that of James Badge Dale as a terminal cancer patient who shares a cigarette with Washington and Reilly during their initial meeting. In the span of three minutes he creates a more vivid character than most actors attempt to do in two hours.
Flight manages to catch you off guard in the manner in which it explores addiction and the question of whether or not its lead character is a hero or someone who is a danger to others as well as himself. When Whip finally faces the NTSB in a hearing headed by none other than Oscar winner Melissa Leo, you’re on the fence about whether or not this guy should be crucified or deserves a pass. Even more important, is the question of whether or not he has the ability to confront his demons and learn humility.
Zemeckis lets the story unfold in the same simplistic style he used for Cast Away, even relying very little on Alan Silvestri’s score, which at times is barely noticeable. Gatins’ script isn’t the well oiled machine it should be, but his lead character and Washington’s performance are powerful enough to drive the entire film. With films like the Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis was known as more of a technical director before he developed respect for his expertise in telling dramatic stories and bringing the best out of his actors. His visual flair is still top notch, along with his ability to produce incredibly realistic imagery with the aid of his computer graphics artisans. The plane crash is unlike anything we’ve seen before; a nail-biting sequence that also has a sense of majesty.
FLIGHT closes the 50th New York Film Festival on Sunday, October, 14th and opens in theaters nationwide NOVEMBER 2nd.