Flight marks the return of director Robert Zemeckis to live-action cinema after a decade of dabbling in motion-capture animation. And it’s clear from the outset of this addiction-themed drama that the movie maker, who gave us crowd-pleasing special effects blockbusters like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, is still in an experimental state of mind. For the most part this dramatic change in direction is still as satisfying and involving as Zemeckis’s blockbuster work. Just in a different way. Sadly though, most of the goodwill generated towards the film evaporates in the last 10 minutes or so, with the script succumbing to tedious moralising.
Flight seems to suggest that Zemeckis has entered a more “adult” phase in his filmography. How do we know this? Well, within seconds of the movie’s start we’re treated to full frontal female nudity and meet our paunchy hero – pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) – smoking heavily and sobering himself up with a snort of cocaine. The antithesis of something feel-good like Forrest Gump.
Flight opens with probably one of the most terrifying onscreen depictions of an airplane disaster. During a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta, systems fail and it’s only Whip’s calm but VERY unorthodox response that saves those onboard. It’s a magnificent sequence, capturing the panic, fear and heart-wrenching acts of heroism of such an incident. Zemeckis is himself an experienced pilot and you get the sense that realism has been prioritised in these scenes. Or at least they feel highly credible to laymen like me.
Anyway, and this may be disappointing to some, but the question at Flight’s core isn’t “What caused the accident?” Rather it’s “Can alcoholic Whip hold it together until the hearing?” You see, there are still deaths, and everyone – the airline, government authorities, plane manufacturers, victims’ families and the public – is looking for someone to hold accountable.
The rest of Flight centres on “hero” Whip’s seesawing battle with addiction as he tries to avoid the media spotlight. Of course, this sentence makes the film sound like some dime-a-dozen drama on the Hallmark Channel… which it isn’t, really. Thanks to strong performances all around and the decision to push Whip far into unlikeable territory, the film is elevated above bland made-for-TV fare.
It also doesn’t hurt that there’s quite a lot of humour in the film, enlivening this tale of self-destruction with some darkly comic touches. Especially effective in this regard are John Goodman as Whip’s abrasive but briskly efficient drug dealer, and James Badge Dale as an unnamed cancer sufferer.
Of course, Denzel Washington is the real Oscar-nominated star of the show. All the expected moments of an addiction movie are present in Flight – Whip storms out of an AA meeting; pushes away his friends and family; boldfaced lies to others and himself; and claims that he doesn’t have a problem. Paired with these typical instances though are more unconventional, potent scenes such as Whip chugging back on a 2-litre bottle of vodka right outside the liquor store, and using survivor’s guilt to manipulate a member of his flight crew. It’s awful but fascinating. And Washington is superb.
It’s a pity then that in its closing minutes Flight sweeps away its complexity and replaces it with trite moral lessons. Personally I didn’t like the ending at all, although, to be fair, I’m not sure how the film could have concluded otherwise. It just seems cheesy and untrue to the character given everything that has preceded it. Flight isn’t necessarily a movie that needs to be experienced on the big screen but if you enjoy character studies, this one is incredibly well acted. If only its ending was on par with its electric start, Flight would have been worth everyone’s effort.