Movie Review: Flight
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Director Robert Zemeckis returns to the world of live-action filmmaking for the first time since 2000’s “Castaway” with “Flight,” another dramatic tale that begins with a horrifying plane crash. The result here leaves a man on a different kind of island, holed up from the world, kept company mainly by his fears and addictions.
If the airplane you’re on takes a nosedive and plummets toward your certain fiery death, there aren’t many actors you’d rather see in the cockpit than Denzel Washington. The preternaturally cool actor with the easy smile has enough swagger and confidence to assuage the most rational of fears.
But Washington’s ace pilot, Whip Whitaker, has an unsettling way of finding his supernatural calm. Like his namesake, he is erratic, dangerous and hard to control.
The alarm goes off in his airport hotel less than two hours before his next scheduled takeoff. Just enough time for the bedraggled pilot to swill the last of a bottle of beer, snort a substantial line of cocaine and take a hit from a joint proffered by his very hot and very naked girlfriend (and flight attendant), Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). And should you doubt this multitasker’s skills, he also finds time to angrily condescend to his ex-wife on the telephone.
Whitaker does not indulge in these vices with any sense of guilt or remorse. And, as he coolly strides toward his plane and flight crew, it becomes obvious that this type of foggy morning ritual has become a manageable norm.
The pilot gives instructions to the 102 passengers on his plane while surreptitiously pouring himself a double screwdriver before taking his seat at the stick. After the steely pilot navigates the plane through some wicked turbulence, he turns the duties of shepherding these 102 “souls,” as they’re referred to throughout the film, over to his fresh-faced co-pilot and sits back for a nap.
When part of the tail malfunctions, Whitaker awakes to a nightmarish scene, the plane quickly losing altitude, his young co-pilot scrambling to manage the life-threatening situation.
Despite the amount of illegal substances coursing through his veins, Whitaker takes command with an assured ease that seems almost God-given. As the plane careers toward the ground, tossing passengers about the cabin, Whitaker delivers detailed instructions to his flight crew. He’s got this. If everyone just does what he says, everything will be fine. Whitaker decides the only way to mitigate the plane’s free fall is to rotate the plane temporarily and approach the ground in an inverted coast.
The intense sequence shows special effects whiz Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) at his finest, as the swift editing propels the action that has passengers slamming into the walls and ceiling of the plane. The extreme realism puts the audience inside the diving plane and will likely give panic attacks to anyone with the slightest aversion to air travel.
As the plane approaches the ground, it clips the steeple of a rural church, the first in a litany of heavy-handed religious symbols. The ripped-apart plane lands, leaving behind only a handful of casualties. The pilot, with all his demons, has performed a miracle. It’s as inspired an action scene as you will see at the movies this year.
During the early scenes of Whitaker’s catastrophe-turned-miracle, the action cuts to another downward spiral. Heroin and coke junkie Nicole, broke and alone, gets her fix while the Red Hot Chili Peppers ballad of heroin addiction, “Under the Bridge,” plays, one of several musical nods in the film that feels entirely overwrought.
While Whitaker continues to navigate the turbulence brought on by his addiction, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) has reached her bottom, and both end up recovering from their separate ailments in the same hospital. They meet while furtively smoking cigarettes in a hospital stairwell, where they encounter a cigarette-smoking cancer patient who gives a glib appraisal of God’s omnipotence and the lack of free will. If you’re keeping score at home, that is religious reference number four. The desperate Nicole even has a bumper sticker on her car offering the polytheistic mantra of “Coexist.”
Though Whitaker appears to the outside world as a hero, there is the requisite investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board. Pilots union representative and Whitaker’s old Navy pal Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and union-hired criminal defense attorney Hugh Lang (an assertive and equally cool Don Cheadle) arrive to buffer the increasingly beleaguered pilot from scrutiny and protect him from himself.
Whitaker also gets support from his old running buddy Harling Mays (John Goodman as the less paranoid twin of his Walter Sobchek from “The Big Lebowski”), who arrives armed with illegal “medicine” to the swelling and eye-rolling sounds of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
And just as we seem to have the beginning of a detailed procedural story rife with coverups and backroom dealings, the narrative of “Flight” shifts, following Whitaker to his remote farmhouse. There, he further indulges his demons and forms a hasty and unbelievable romantic relationship with the recovering and supportive Nicole.
Whitaker has an amazing ability to compartmentalize his life and deny that his addictions had any hand in the wreck. No reason to stop drinking.
Washington, who appears in almost every scene, fascinates with a stubborn and self-righteous indignity that he wears on his expressive face. Eventually, the lines on his face begin to show as his boundaries crack and booze overwhelms his life. When it’s at its best and most focused, the overly long “Fight” delivers an arresting character study of a broken man who refuses to recognize his myriad fractures. Washington gives his most visceral performance since “Training Day,” as he crumbles from the inside out.
As the hearing approaches, Whitaker’s enablers and supporters attempt to protect him, but the pilot can’t seem to keep his demons at bay. The tension around the hearing and whether Whitaker will be exonerated are conflated with a saccharine redemption story that deviates from the main thrust of the film.
“Flight” is a confusing and at times maddening film. It delivers harrowing action and does an excellent job of ratcheting up suspense. But John Gatins’ script, loaded with religious subtext, gets gummed up with melodramatic and sermonizing tropes of self-help drama, like a diary written by a person who knows people will be reading his diary.