Flight (2012): Zemeckis’ Drama Starring Denzel Washington in Oscar-Nominated Performance

“Flight,” a timely, relevant and emotionally touching film, is very much welcomed as Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action in 12 years, a too long absence, during which he devoted his creative energies and considerable skills to the field of animation–to mixed results, I might add.

As a  critic for Variety, I had reviewed Zemeckis’ last live-action feature, “Cast Away,” in 2000, which boasted a great performance from Tom Hanks (the star of Zemeckis’ Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump”).   I am struck by some similarities between the two features, especially in their first reels, which describe a fatal airplane crash and its impact on one individual.

Appearing in each and every scene, Denzel Washington, playing a drug-addict ace pilot, renders an utterly compelling performance,easily  his richest and strongest in a decade or, since “Training Day.”  That 2001 policier, in which Washington also played a flawed character–a corrupt cop- won him the Best Actor Oscar, and with some luck and justice, “Flight” should earn him yet another Oscar nomination.

The whole movie deserves serious Oscar consideration in various categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor (John Goodman), Supporting Actress, and  some technical  fields.  Like all of Zemeckis’ films, “Flight” is extremely well produced and well shot by Roger Deakins (More about it later).

Washington’s charisma and gravitas are so crucial to the film’s emotional impact that it’s hard to imagine another actor playing this dense, complex, challenging part, which enables him to display the whole gamut of feelings, from pride to anger to love to defeat, and ultimately to redemption.

World-premiering at the New York Film Festival as closing night, on October 14, and playing at the Chicago Film Fest, “Flight” will be released theatrically by Paramount on November 2.  As of today, it’s a highlight of the cinematic year, a supremely mounted film that’s message-oriented yet vastly entertaining.

The film’s nominal subject, an aircraft that goes out of control and crashes, with most of the passengers surviving the accident, could have been torn off from the headline news.  Indeed, topical and relevant, “Flight” could not have been timelier, considering the recent news stories about mechanical problems and other ills that inflicting our airlines, such as American Airlines.

But the major achievement of this “Flight” is its sharp and multi-layered narrative, which is dramatically and emotionally effective as a mystery thriller (why and how the plane crashed?); an insightful character study, focusing on a likeable but severely flawed pilot, colleague,  husband, and father, and a social message picture about drug addiction and various ethical and professional dilemmas we often face in our daily lives and various capacities.

Washington is perfectly cast as Captain Whip Whitaker, a charismatic, self-assured, middle-aged pilot, who’s at the top of his game.  Whip makes it all look so effortless, so smooth, so professional that you don’t suspect it might be a facade, a cover-up for some inner demons and hidden problems.  Early on, we see him in bed, drunk, snorting cocaine, partying, smoking and enjoying sex.  Never mind that he’s been drinking and partying heavily for three days (October 11, 12, 13—the dates are crucial) before taking a major flight on October 14. (It’sprobably  a coincidence but the world premiere of “Flight” took place last night, October 14!)

Clearly, for a well-respected, senior pilot of a commercial airliner, that’s an unusual lifestyle, but Whip seems to be in control, never showing the effects of his personal lifestyle in his domain, the cockpit—at least for a while.  It’s a standard operating procedure for Whip:  He is the kind of confident professional for whom even an inclement weather is dismissed as a minor problem.

The autumn morning of October 14, when SouthJet 227 departs Orlando, Florida, seems to be just another routine trip. Captain Whip Whitaker, after another typical night of carousing, is at the helm of the Jackson-Ridgefield 88 Passenger Jet along with his young, clean-cut co-pilot and first officer Ken Evans, who is white (though thankfully race is not an issue) and Whip’s polar opposite in every way.

The flight soon encounters heavier-than-anticipated turbulence as they fly into a massive storm.  Whip steers the plane into the clearing, albeit in an unconventional and eyebrow raising way, to the relief of the flight’s 96 passengers and six members of the flight crew.

But things quickly escalate out of control, when the pilots encounter a series of inexplicable mechanical malfunctions, causing the plane to rock and dip and shudder like a rollercoaster.  As these breakdowns began to multiply, causing the plane to spiral downward and seemingly out of the pilots’ control, Whip decides that his only recourse to maintain a level altitude is to maneuver the 50-ton plane into a barrel roll and complete inversion.

This dangerous manuever, he believes, will allow it to glide without its engines until he can right the plane and land it.  Whip finds a patch of nearby land adjacent to a church where he can attempt his landing.  At 140 miles per hour, he inverts the aircraft and brings it down.  The impact is shattering, but Whip, in an incredible, ingenious stroke, he calmly manages to land safely enough to save all but six of the 102 passengers on board.  Of the six casualties,  four are civilians and two are crew members and it’s a cdit to the scenarist that they are individuals identified by name, and not just stereotypes of plot functions.

For his miraculous crash landing, the media hail and celebrate Whip as a savior-hero.  But there are lingering questions. The cause of the crash isn’t entirely clear to his superiors and to the NTSB, and so a thorough investigation ensues.  As the query drags on and, and new players are brought into the investigation, Whip continues to struggle with various demons, prime among which is his drug addiction.

Scribe John Gatins has constructed an intricate tale—sort of a puzzle–inn which old and new allies rally around Whip, coalitions change, and friendship and familial relationships are continuously tested.  Gatins’ scenario reveals his background as a former actor (there are many good scenes for the actors to display their dramatic chops) as well as a technical advisor on a “military-themed epic” where he spent time with technical advisors who were naval pilots.

Whip’s friend and union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenberg) takes on his case, as does the canny lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle).  Whip’s droll pal Harling Mays (John Goodman) also lends support (and supplies)—and provides the film’s only comic relief.

The tale’s least convincing aspect is the new romantic liaison between Whip and a kindred spirit, Nicole, a down-on-her-luck photographer and recovering substance abuser, who tries to convince Whip that he is alcoholic and should go to AA meetings with her.  The filmmakers may have felt that a female is needed, as Whip’s ex-wife (the only other woman in the film) has a very small and underdeveloped part.  There is no strong rapport between Washington and actress Kelly Reilly,  and so their sex scenes do not generate any heat.  (We sigh with relief when she walks out on him, and the main story gets back on track).

The movie suffers from other flawless.  My initial reaction points to several problems.  First, the excessive running time: Cloakingin  at 138 minutes, “Flight” is overlong.  Second, some of the scenes in the middle chapters feel a bit schematic, which turn the tale into a more mainstream and conventional melodrama than it really is, or intends to be.

But there is so much to admire that the aforementioned shortcomings do not undermine the film’s artistic merits, which are plentiful, and its overall emotional impact.

The best compliment I can pay “Flight” is to say that it recalls the great character-driven movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, for some Hollywood’s last Golden Age, made by the likes of Sidney Lumet, Polanski, Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Hal Ashby and others.

Cast

Whip Whitaker – Denzel Washington
Hugh Lang – Don Cheadle
Nicole – Kelly Reilly
Harling Mays – John Goodman
Charlie Anderson – Bruce Greenwood
Ken Evans – Brian Geraghty
Margaret Thomason – Tamar Tunie

 Credits

Paramount release and presentation of an Imagemovers, Parkes/MacDonald production.

Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke.

Executive producer, Cherylanne Martin.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay, John Gatins.

Camera: Don Burgess

Editor, Jeremiah O’Driscoll.

Music, Alan Silvestri

Production designer, Nelson Coates

Art director, David Lazan; set decorator, James Edward Ferrell

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 138 Minutes.