It’s always nice when a movie asks questions but even nicer when those questions are complex, morally ambiguous or otherwise at least a little bit tough. With his first live action feature in twelve years, director Robert Zemeckis takes nearly two and a half hours to grapple with a question I think most audience members can answer in a couple of seconds: Even if you’re a really good pilot and can hold your liquor, is it ok to fly a crowded commercial jet when you’re hammered?
Uh, no. The End. Closing credits. Lights up. The problem with Flight is that its makers would like you to believe there’s more going on, that it’s more profound than that. And it’s not.
What it is is intermittently engaging. It stars Denzel Washington, whose career if one is honest really has been only intermittently engaging. Critics tend to cut him all kinds of slack but the fact is that, for every Philadelphia or Training Day, there have been three or four forgettable paychecks like The Preacher’s Wife, The Bone Collector and Out of Time.
And Deja Vu, Virtuosity, The Siege, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Book of Eli and Unstoppable. If this movie raises a single question of note, it’s this: Is Washington’s batting average actually any better than that of, say, Nicolas Cage?
Who, of course, earned his best reviews and an Oscar for a brilliant performance as a drunk in Leaving Las Vegas. Hollywood has always had a thing for sagas of addiction and salvation. Washington borrows several pages from Cage’s book in his contribution to the genre. His Captain Whip Whitaker loves to fly.
When he’s not flying on a SouthJet plane, he’s flying on booze, coke, weed and painkillers. Sometimes even when he is. As the movie opens, he’s just spent the night partying with a nubile flight attendant and snorts a couple of thick lines to get straight for his morning Orlando to Atlanta run. The surprise isn’t that there’s trouble. It’s that Whitaker isn’t the cause.
To the contrary, when a mechanical failure sends the jet hurtling earthward in a terrifying nosedive, Washington’s character keeps his cool and executes a hot dog maneuver that saves the day. If you’ve seen Cast Away, you know Zemeckis can direct a digital air disaster with the best of them and the sequence is by far the movie’s most engaging.
In fact the rest is a let down. Six people out of the 102 on board die when Whitaker crash lands the crippled aircraft in a field and an NTSB investigation is launched to determine whether, given his blood alcohol count, the pilot is a hero or a criminal who should be charged with manslaughter. Since we watched the plane malfunction, we already know his condition didn’t effect the jet’s so this thread of the story fails to generate much in the way of suspense.
Neither do the threads involving a nubile heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) who falls for Whitaker and nudges him toward AA or Whip’s by-the-number battle with his demons. If you’ve ever seen an afterschool special on the perils of alcohol abuse, the screenplay by John Gatins (Coach Carter) is likely to offer few surprises.
Washington’s work is solid throughout. He’s won two Oscars. Playing a drunk probably didn’t rank among the greatest challenges of his career. And a number of dependable performers are excellent in supporting parts-Bruce Greenwood as Whitaker’s union rep, Don Cheadle as his disapproving attorney and John Goodman on a hot streak following Argo as the pilot’s colorful supplier. Unfortunately, the movie fails to prove greater than the sum of these parts.
At a pivotal point Whitaker realizes that, however the investigation turns out, he’s guilty of betraying the public trust. Zemeckis is guilty of that too in a more benign way for luring ticket buyers with a first act he had to know his second and third couldn’t possibly live up to. After that spectacular opening, it isn’t just downhill; it’s variously dull, preachy, sappy and predictable.
My suggestion: Think twice before buying the hype. This is one Flight it wouldn’t be a tragedy to miss.