Review – Flight

The poster for Robert Zemeckis’ first foray into live action filmmaking for a dozen years captures everything that’s good – and not-so-good – about Flight.

in Robert Zemeckis' Flight

A towering performance by Denzel Washington is almost ruined by a clumsily heavy-handed symbolism in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight

Denzel Washington’s airline pilot ‘Whip’ Whitaker conveys an authority befitting his vocation, but the rain pouring down suggests something is very wrong.

It’s a simple image that tells you all you need to know about the film. At its core is a towering central performance of one man’s painful journey towards redemption, but that odyssey is marred by a style of direction that’s about as subtle as taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

The signs are there from the first few moments when flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) wanders naked around the hotel room she’s sharing with lover Whitaker after a heavy night on the booze to the strains of the Barenaked Ladies’ Alcohol. Then, after a pick-me-up and a snort of cocaine a swaggering Whitaker emerges from the room with Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright playing in the background.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) prepares for take off in Flight

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) prepares for take off in Flight

This clumsiness is further compounded when the plane Whitaker miraculously pilots symbolically clips the top of a church before it crash lands, killing six (including Katerina) but crucially saving almost 100 other passengers and crew.

Zemeckis has proven himself a master filmmaker of the plane crash following 2000’s Cast Away (his last live action film), which showed it from the terrified perspective of Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland. Here, we see the action from the cockpit as Whitaker confidently takes charge and rolls the plane upside down to bring it out of a nose dive. It’s heart-pounding stuff that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) performs a miraculous manoeuvre in Flight

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) performs a miraculous manoeuvre in Flight

He’s saluted as a hero by both the media and friends, including union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and his flamboyant dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman), whose musical cue is the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil lest we forget his chosen profession. But Whitaker’s world begins to crumble when he discovers a blood sample was taken in hospital which, if it were to become public would reveal he was drunk at the controls and land him in jail.

Harling Mays (John Goodman) comes to an unusual rescue in Flight

Harling Mays (John Goodman) comes to an unusual rescue in Flight

It’s an intriguing story, extremely well scripted by John Gatins that has you rooting for an anti-hero who isn’t just flawed, but plain unlikable for stretches. It also examines the lengths people and corporations will go to distort the facts to maintain a story so long as it has a happy ending, while also pointing a finger at the media for endlessly speculating and editorialising when there’s little or nothing to report.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) finds a connection with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) in Flight

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) finds a connection with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) in Flight

Whitaker is that familiar movie cipher, the flawed genius, but Washington in his best performance since winning an Oscar for 2001’s Training Day (an equally unlikable role) adds layers of nuance to give us one of the most expressive and fascinating portrayals of functioning alcoholism yet seen on screen.

It's judgement time for union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), company lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and "unstable pilot Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in Flight

It’s judgement time for union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), company lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and “unstable pilot Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in Flight

Furthermore, Flight asks the uncomfortable question of whether it’s the drink and drugs that bring out the real brilliance in Whitaker; the film certainly seems to suggest so.

Goodman’s blunderbuss performance is out-of-place and more in keeping with his Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, although Don Cheadle is excellent as the morally dubious lawyer trying to paper over the cracks and Brit Kelly Reilly does a lot with a thin role as a heroin addict who Whitaker befriends after meeting in hospital (just in case we didn’t know she’s an addict, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ drug anthem Under The Bridge helpfully plays on the soundtrack).

In many ways Flight is a welcome return to the ‘real’ world for Zemeckis following his triumvirate of motion-capture uncanny valley animations The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, but in his zealousness for proper, adult drama he serves up a film so heavy-handed in its use of symbolism and music he almost ruins it.

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9 comments

  1. CMrok93 · March 11, 2013

    Denzel is amazing here. So amazing, that the rest of the movie sort of suffers for it a bit. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 11, 2013

      Thanks for the feedback as always. I quite agree; he pretty much suffocates everything else around him, save for Don Cheadle who I thought was excellent.

  2. filmhipster · March 11, 2013

    “Goodman’s blunderbuss performance is out-of-place and more in keeping with his Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski.”

    EXACTLY! This is how I felt about Goodman’s role as well. Really disturbed the pacing of the film. Other than that I enjoyed it. Nice review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 11, 2013

      I don’t know what Zemeckis was thinking apart from wanting to insert some comic relief. Bearing in mind Zemeckis’ recent motion-capture efforts, Goodman’s scenes felt, shall we say, cartoonish?

      • filmhipster · March 11, 2013

        Yes far too cartoonish and it really took away from the seriousness of the film. I felt he was placed into Argo for the same reasons but not so over the top.

  3. Natalie Stendall · March 11, 2013

    Great review. Really enjoyed this one. Denzel Washington is incredible, well deserving of that Oscar nomination!

    • Three Rows Back · March 11, 2013

      Thanks. Yeah, he’s superb isn’t he? Unfortunately, his performance kinda dwarfs the rest of the movie.

  4. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · March 11, 2013

    Great review. I’m glad you picked up on the ridiculously blatant soundtrack! Hardly bloody subtle! Denzel really did make this film, without him it would have been nothing but mediocre.

  5. The Northern Plights · July 29, 2013

    I saw this at a private screening in My Lounge on Saturday…I was, as I am sure all were, gripped by the set piece scene and all agog when the fact that a blood test had been carried out, but then I found the whole thing a bit ‘dribbly’…it taxied, but never really took off – I think a court drama would have served it better.

    The soundtrack was awfully cliched and heavy handed and the final line smacked of a writer who was given a minimum word count.

    ~The Dippylomat. Esq.

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