Two movies for the price of one, or two halves of different wholes? Flight is a strange combination of genres; the first act is all thriller, while the next two acts are emotional character drama. For this reason it might satisfy one kind of viewer at the start and another kind with what follows.
Flight is director Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Castaway) return to directing after a few years off. Partially inspired by the famous US Airways Flight 1549 that pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ditched in the Hudson River, saving all passengers and crew from a deadly crash, Denzel Washington brings his all to his performance as Whip Whitaker, a pilot whose remarkable aerial abilities are overshadowed by his raging alcoholism. After a similar, miracle landing to Sully’s (albeit a tad less successful) Whitaker is first praised as a hero, and then challenged as a drunk when his medical toxicity screen comes back positive for alcohol and cocaine. The thrilling plane crash opening, shot with the same ferocity and suspense as Zemeckis boasted in his previous plane crash-propelled film Castaway, is followed by something completely different. The film slows into what strives to be a very modernist character drama about America’s oldest sickness: alcoholism.
Though many separate aspects of a good movie are present in Zemeckis’ return to directing, such as good performances and apt cinematography, Flight falls short of being a truly effective film. Fans of subtlety will feel abandoned almost immediately. The film seems to mistake adult content for adult cinema, for although it boasts all the nudity, profanity, frank depictions of drug-use and addiction that one would expect from a dramatic adult character study, the final product ends up much more like something one would be forced to watch in a high school Drug Ed class.
John Goodman and Don Cheadle deliver strong – at times hilarious – performances that, at the very least, entertain. Goodman’s Jerry Garcia-like drug dealer and Cheadle’s firecracker attorney provide passing, auxiliary support to Washington’s overshadowing character arc. Both supporting actors seem like they stepped out of very different films in which they were the protagonists, namely some raunchy stoner comedy (Goodman) and some far more compelling courtroom drama (Cheadle.)
Kelly Reilly provides what is perhaps the only truly symbiotic supporting role as Nicole Maggen, a heroin addict who mirrors Whitaker’s own addiction. The opening act seems to paint her story in equal importance to Whip’s, leaving the audience wishing for the more focused film she seems to belong to.
Without a doubt the most enjoyable and thoroughly realized supporting performance comes in the extremely brief cameo of James Badge Dale as a “Gaunt Young Man”, who offers up his take on death and God in a brief hospital exchange, a well-written scene that lends hope to the immediately preceding thrilling opening, in what turns out to be just the moment the film loses momentum.
The soundtrack is one of the film’s weakest points. The overplayed songs throughout are the typical Classic Rock Station fare with almost no deep tracks or original selections, while the soft and sentimental original score hams up the already melodramatic dialogue, especially at the film’s conclusion.
Religious themes abound in such a manner as to hint at some deeper, spiritual analysis, but in the end, amount to little more than a very traditional and typical redemption story. The fact that Whip’s miracle landing strikes a church steeple on its way down, Cheadle’s levying to have the crash legally regarded as an “act of God,” and the ever present spirituality of the 12 steps program all meld towards a non-specific theological spine for the film that, unlike our titular journey, never takes flight.
The film’s principal success is in its fairly harrowing depiction of alcoholism, fully realizing the mania, denial and recklessness of such a sickness. But even this accuracy is undercut by the odd product placement throughout, seeming to meditate not simply on Whip’s urge for beer and vodka, but more specifically on his urge for Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stoli, and Ketel One. It’s strange to see alcohol seemingly advertised in such a grim, self-aware context, but plenty of audience members can be heard whispering “good choice” as Washington reaches for his particular poison.
Zemeckis is no stranger to sentimental cinema, and there is a glimmer of that renowned, tear-jerking flair audiences remember so well from his undeniable classics like Forrest Gump or Castaway. Much of the film is actually quite captivating, and Zemeckis does manage to evoke suspense out of little more than constant uncertainty in Whip’s ability to stay sober. Many sequences indeed keep the whole audience waiting with bated breath. It’s only when the credits start to roll that the full feeling of disappointment sets in, and the rising hope that Zemeckis’ next effort will provide more of what audiences have grown to love from him. He’s established himself as a pioneer of imaginative and even risky ideas, but unfortunately, with this return, he’s playing it safe.