Movie Review: “Flight”
Imagine real-life hero pilot “Sulley” Sullenberger with a severe drug and alcohol problem and doing a few lines prior to taking controls in the cockpit, yet still managing to land his packed airplane with absolute precision on the Hudson River. Would he still be a hero? That’s the dilemma of the new film, “Flight,” which just hit theaters this week.
This is a difficult movie to sit through. Yet it’s tough to decide which is more gut-wrenching — watching a doomed airliner packed full of passengers buckled down in a nosedive headed for near-certain death, or the central character played by Denzel Washington, whose personal life is just as out of control.
While Washington’s character nicknamed “Whip” manages to miraculously maneuver the aircraft towards a crash landing that undoubtedly saves lives, the captain comes under increasing scrutiny once the post-crash investigation begins. Conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the investigation begins to reveal some troubling revelations about Whip and his conduct. Every second of the pilot and crew’s lives are scrutinized, which uncovers some ugly secrets about how Whip spends most of his free time. His best friends are bottles with names like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, with a few lines of cocaine to add a little spice.
The hero-addict dichotomy is a marvelous dramatic device which helps to sustain a longer-than-average 2.5 hour movie. The audience faces a real conflict here. We don’t know whether to cheer for Whip to beat the rap and move on with his life (after all, he heroically saved lives), or be exposed as the fraud he is so the healing and recovery process can begin.
Indeed, this film is not so much about the plane crash and aftermath as it is about addiction and realizing that one has a serious problem. While the crash scene is one of the most intense such moments ever recreated on film, the film’s highest moments of drama actually occurs in hotel rooms and in front of refrigerators when Whip faces his toughest choice — whether to drink or not. Most of the time, the bottle wins the war of the inner spirit, just as it tragically so often does with real life alcoholics.
If there’s any doubt about Denzel Washington being one of the finest actors of our generation, this should finally settle the issue. His is a resume filled with high moments — his Academy Award winning over-the-top portrayal of a corrupt cop in “Training Day” perhaps being his best work. But this performance is every bit as strong for entirely different reasons. Washington shows great range in this film, flip-flopping between the boozing jet-setting playboy (played to perfection) and the sad and lonely loser that deep inside he know he has become.
It’s Washington when he’s most vulnerable that carries this film. Just the right expression at the right time, a teardrop in a rare moment when he lets his guard down, or displaying a phony facade of going through the motions while being stoned and high on the inside — these are the virtues that only a few actors working today could so successfully give to an audience. No doubt, Washington’s role here will be remembered when Best Actor nominations come out for this year’s Oscars.
Robert Zemickis’ direction is also near-perfect. This is often a dark and depressing movie, a sort of “Leaving Las Vegas” with an airline pilot in the central sympathetic role. Yet we never get too low, even watching a man hellbent on self-destruction. Zemickis, perhaps best known for his direction of “Forrest Gump,” handles the material with great care, managing an excellent supporting cast — led by two superb roles by Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle — who serve to change the mood just when the film seems to become too dark.
There are some scenes and storylines that I found unnecessary. Whip finds a romantic interest along the way, a fellow addict. I had a hard time buying the notion that a 20-year career airline pilot would find much in common with a very plain-looking heroin addict one step up from doing back alley blowjobs as someone to find comfort with . The girl simply lacks any appeal. To her credit, at least she’s headed in the right direction in her recovery while Whip guzzles one beer after another. But I found her not only to be implausible partner but totally unnecessary to the story — adding at least 30 minutes to a film that probably should have capped out at two hours.
The film builds to a fulfilling climax that won’t be revealed here. Some ends are tied up nicely, while others remain frayed. Which is all fine — that’s how real life works.
In short, this is good film made much better by the wide range of talent displayed by one of Hollywood’s finest actors. Denzel Washington’s performance alone is reason enough to see the film.
7 Stars Out of 10