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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Flight (2012)

* * *

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle

Flight is a film that places itself firmly in a moral gray area. On the one hand, its protagonist, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is right when he says that he was given a broken plane and that, inebriated or not, no other pilot could have landed it as safely as he did (the question of whether even he would have been bold enough to try what he does had he not been drunk and on drugs remains unspoken). On the other hand, there's really no excuse for being drunk on the job, especially if you're a pilot. Though the film is advertised as a disaster and aftermath drama, it's actually a cerebral addiction drama in which its protagonist tries again and again to justify his actions, until finally getting to the point where he no longer can. It's a film that often descends into inelegant manipulation, but that ultimately succeeds in spite of itself and on the strength of its extraordinary cast.

Flight begins with what is, by all appearances, an ordinary day. Whip wakes up with a wicked hangover (and a flight attendant), finishes off what's left of the previous night's drinks, and then chases it with a line of coke and goes to work to fly what should be a quick and routine run from Orlando to Atlanta. Midway through the flight - and after Whip has helped himself to a couple of in-flight drinks - the plane begins to fail. Descending in a nosedive, Whip and his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) quickly exhaust their options and Whip decides to try to invert the plane in order to arrest the fall and give them a chance to level out the aircraft. The maneuver works and Whip is able to guide the plane into an empty field, losing consciousness as the plane crashes into the ground.

When Whip wakes up in the hospital, he learns that 6 of the 102 people on board died (including the flight attendant he was involved with) and that his blood was drawn at the scene and shows that his blood alcohol level was well over the legal limit. As an investigation into the causes of the crash gets underway, Whip retreats to his late father's farm house, bringing along Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman he meets while they're both patients in the hospital, and whom he recognizes as a kindred spirit. Nicole is recovering from a heroin overdose, determined this time to stay clean, which is no easy feat considering the amount of drinking that Whip is doing. Meanwhile, Whip keeps insisting to his union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) that he's got it together, that his drinking isn't a problem, and that he'll be able to quit drinking long enough to appear at the hearing. He's plummeting towards rock bottom and the only question that remains is whether he'll be able to pull himself out before he destroys every relationship he has in the process.

One of the major problems with Flight (aside from music cues that go beyond "on the nose" to irritatingly obvious) is that the narrative is structurally unsound and the direction is too weak to cover for the script's deficiencies. There are scenes which feel like they belong in a different movie (I'm thinking in particular of Whip's bizarre hospital visit to his co-pilot) and an ending which, aside from falling just short of being believable, is also preachy and manipulative, and feels like the stuff of TV movies. That the ending does not end up being utterly laughable is a testament to Washington's skill as an actor, as his performance not only rises above the material, but often manages to drag the material above itself as well. One of the rather miraculous things about the movie is how much sympathy we end up feeling for Whip, despite all the time we spend watching him self-destruct and employing the addict's ability to exploit the affection other people have for him in order to preserve the addiction. The character is great and Washington leaves no stone unturned in portraying him with complexity, showing that there is an actual man behind the addiction and behind the bravado that he wields like a shield. There's a quiet desperation to the character that underlines many scenes and it's in these moments that Washington is at his best, expressing a lot while saying little. It's a commanding performance, one of the actor's best.

The supporting cast - which includes John Goodman as Whip's dealer - is equally good, particularly Reilly. Whip and Nicole are two broken people, mirrors of each other in many ways, with the key difference that Nicole has reached bottom while Whip still has a ways to go. That they're drawn to each other seems natural; that they're eventually drawn apart, even more so. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Washignton and Reilly, but the relationship between the characters also highlights one of the problems with the structure of the film: Flight sets Whip and Nicole's struggles up as parallel narratives, intercutting between the flight that almost ends his life and the overdose that almost ends hers, only to let Nicole proceed through her character arc off-screen and then disappear entirely mid-way through the movie. It's a disappointment because Reilly is so very good and because, despite some cliches, the relationship between Whip and Nicole is so compelling.

Flight is a deeply flawed and uneven film, but in the end the things that it does right surpass the things it does wrong. The cast is excellent from top to bottom and the sequence depicting the plane crash is amazing - not just intense, but also deeply upsetting. Sequences like this are where Zemeckis excels as a director and he does a great job at giving the characters moments to breathe and develop even in the midst of the action. For all that I would recommend Flight, although it is a qualified recommendation if ever there was one.

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