Flight (2013)

Bruce Greenwood, Denzel Washington, drama, drugs, John Goodman, review, Robert Zemeckis

In my opinion, Flighthad a pretty terrible marketing campaign that presented it as something much worse than it actually is. The first time I saw the trailer I was completely put off. It looked silly and badly written and, let’s be honest, any trailer that places John Goodman in a prominent role is realistically likely to be disappointing.  The best way I could describe the idea I had about this Robert Zemeckis film was as something written by the two lazy film writers from That Mitchell and Webb Look. (“We wanted to write a film about a pilot that survives a crash but we don’t know anything about aeroplanes. We were super busy so we just thought sod it.”) Then it went and got great feedback, Oscar nominations and glowing recommendations from friends. It seemed only fair to ignore my first impression and give it a go. Denzel Washington deserves that much at least.

Flight is Zemeckis’ first foray into the world of live-action film-making after a decade spent playing with motion-capture. Whilst it advertises itself as a lazy and mindless drama revolving around air-travel, it actually turns out to be a sombre look into the tortured life of pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington). It has been described my many as an intensely adult film to help the director move away from the family friendly material he’s been distributing recently. To make this point even clearer, Zemeckis starts his film with boobs.
Those boobs belong to sexy flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) who has accompanied Whip on a wild night indulging in a combination of drink, drugs and sex. The pilot wakes feeling slightly worse for wear but easily jolts himself back into action with a swig of stale beer and two lines of cocaine. After an argument with his ex-wife (his marriage being a victim of his addictive lifestyle), Whip leaves his hotel room so he can take his seat in the cockpit of a flight departing for Atlanta. Whip further prepares himself by taking a hit of oxygen. Whip has clearly become adept at hiding his problem and, despite his co-pilot’s (Brian Geraghty) suspicions, manages to get himself together enough to project an air of professionalism and authority from behind his aviators.
The first half hour or so is put together by Zemeckis to continually mess with the audience by building and lowering the tension until the inevitable happens. Not only must we live with the knowledge that our trusted pilot was snorting the white stuff only moments before stepping on board but he is then forced to take evasive action on take-off to avoid turbulent weather conditions. When the plane finally starts to fail your emotional will already have been put through the ringer in a way that Alfred Hitchcock would have surely been proud. Zemeckis, as we know, has experience with grounding planes but this certainly outweighs anything we saw in Cast Away. The crash itself is an amazing example of dramatic cinema; a tense nose dive, during which Zemeckis barely moves out of the cockpit.
Thanks to some quick-thinking and a rather swish idea to invert the plane (plus an extra large dose of Dutch courage thanks to some stolen bottles of vodka), Whip manages to land after a mechanical failure sends it into plummeting to the ground. It was Whip’s ability to keep calm in the face of certain death that allowed him to save all but six of the souls on board his craft. A feat that we are later told no other pilot succeeded during a simulation of the crash conditions. We are forced to face the terrifying reality that the results were as happy as they were not despite of Whip’s intoxicated state but, rather, thanks to it. This is the ethical conundrum that runs throughout Flight. After all, if he managed to land an unlandable plane, how much of a problem does he really have? Certainly, in his own view, Whip is in fine with his lifestyle and the aftermath of the crash only pushes him closer to self-destruction. In order to avoid life in the limelight Whitaker takes up residence at his grandfather’s farm where he takes part in some soul-searching and trips down memory lane; in between binges, of course.
Flight can basically be described as the study of a broken man living in denial; Whip’s constant flight from the truth of his sorry personal situation. The film has an unending focus on Washington who remains on screen for almost the entire run time. He, of course, was Oscar nominated for his performance and it is easy to see why. He’s on fine form and plays the role with a subtlety that would be lost had a lesser actor taken the role. He is thoughtful and emotive rather than in-your-face and angry. Washington lets his eyes take the focus in a way that none of Zemeckis’ recent motion-capture monstrosities could ever hope to replicate. Despite your frustration towards his actions and attitude, Washington plays it in such a way that you’re always willing Whip to change. It’s a performance that shows us the pilot’s weaknesses, denial and meanness (alcohol induced) whilst containing more than a glimmer of the actor’s own charisma. You know you shouldn’t like Whip but there is something about him that stops you from walking away.
Unfortunately, you can’t get away from the sense that Whip is being allowed a little too much time to wallow and, at 2 hours 20 minutes, it does feel rather bloated and self-indulgent. There can be no getting away from the feeling that large sections of Flight are both dull and completely redundant. Most notably being the heroin addict with a heart of gold (played by the hugely talented Kelly Reilly) who Whip philosophises with in a hospital stairwell before rescuing her from her squalid life. For her part Reilly plays the cliché with a gritty determination but she is both horribly underused and completely unnecessary to the plot. The same can be said of the rest of the supporting cast who, aside from John Goodman who has a couple of scenes to let loose, are left floundering  in the background as Washington naturally demands all of your attention. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle both offer fine performances as Whip’s friend and a ruthless lawyer respectively but their potential is limited because the focus is solely on the main man.
Despite being somewhat hampered own its own alcohol-induced bloat, Zemeckis’s film does provide an interesting moral argument and contains moments of cinematic genius. It is a film made by its main star and, thankfully, Washington is more than up to the task. Managing to keep the film moving despite a lengthy running time, a flabby plot and a script littered with off-putting religious symbolism. Flight is by no means a terrible film but there were certain aspect that could have been sharper or better thought-out to make it a film worthy of its lead performance and instead of its misleading trailer.

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