Robert Zemeckis returns from the motion capture world to give us another movie with a plane crash and a pretty great staring turn by Denzel Washington.
I jest a bit with that opening, but Flight is being sold as a plane crash movie; this is some deceptive marketing as the movie is mostly not that. The film is actually a character study of the lead Whip Whitaker, played by Washington, as he drunkenly deals with the repercussions of the events that led up to, and during, the plane crash. What we get is an epic drinking binge full of self loathing and pity that takes you down deeper and deeper into the depths of Whitaker’s soul.
The film does a good job of taking us on this journey and I was certainly caught off guard that this is what the film was going to be about. Zemeckis does a great job at keeping the potentially over the top dive believable and he builds out the world and people around Whip to mostly solid effect. The film does have a few too many narrative dead ends and false starts in the many sub-plots, but at their worst they are still informing us of Whip’s background.
One of the biggest surprises in the film is the character Nicole, played by a great Kelly Reilly, who seems awkwardly forced into the narrative early on, but the payoff works fairly well. She crosses paths with Whip in the hospital post crash, she had OD’d, and the scene where they connect is possibly the best in the film. Ironically it is neither of them who make the scene great as James Badge Dale comes in for this one scene and absolutely kills it, selling us on why Nicole and Whip would end up together.
In a film that consists mainly of watching Washington drink in various locations for most of its runtime, the acting better be top notch to sell you on the drama. Zemeckis assembles a fine cast and they succeed making the film entertaining for most of its runtime. The cast is so good that they might be almost too likable for the sake of the film. You want to be able to root for the characters and hope the best for them, and hoping Whip can get on the wagon is something we can easily root for, but the cast wins you over so much that you tend to forget that a lot of these guys are selfish assholes. Washington is great as Whip and he shows off a range we know he can handle as he has both the swagger we have come to expect and shows the depths of a drunk convincingly well. Don Cheadle plays a slimy defense attorney and is easy to like and Bruce Greenwood fits the same bill as the pilots union rep and an old war buddy of Whip. Where we get into trouble with these characters comes at an important juncture near the end of the film, but I think this tonal misstep is mostly on the hands of Zemeckis.
The film is building up to its climax and it decides to go for laughs when we should be wallowing in Whip finally hitting bottom. I understand trying to cut the tension, but the scene preceding this is a master class in suspense, with nothing more than a mini-fridge no less, and it gets the audience back on the side of Whip who doesn’t deserve it anymore. Making it hard to get mad at this choice though is an amazing John Goodman who comes in and steals the show in his two brief scenes as an old friend of Whip. Another strike against the film is its finale which is a bit too neat of a bow if you ask me.
I mentioned Kelly Reilly earlier and she gives a fine, fragile performance as a recovering addict and romantic interest for Whip. The character is there as a possible saving grace for Whip’s addiction and Reilly plays the part as good as one could hope for; even if the execution could certainly have been a bit better. Melissa Leo pops up in a critical scene late in the film and she is the exact cool and calculated presence needed to bounce of Washington in that moment. Nadine Velazquez is also particularly effective in her brief screen time making us feel for her which is essential to the film’s climax.
Flight is worth the price of admission to see Denzel deliver one of his better performances in some time; doubly so since he plays a character that doesn’t feel like a re-hash of an older role. Zemeckis’s craft is still sharp, but I think the film’s writing lets the film down in a couple key places that the director should have caught. Regardless, the film is an easy watch and will no doubt suck you in for the length of the runtime; I just can’t help but think that a couple tweaks and bit more plot could have taken this into the top notch territory.
Flight is a B-