Well, here it is: after several weeks of coverage, Flight is the closing film of the New York Film Festival. On one hand, it’s curious that the closing film is the festival’s most commercial. On the other, that is a perfect way to give a last-minute injection of major interest into a festival that has had its ups and downs this year. Directed by Robert Zemeckis — his first live action film since 2000’s Castaway — and starring Denzel Washington as alcoholic airline pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, it is definitely a commercial film that doesn’t quite fit in with a film festival, but Zemeckis has made a worthy return to live action with a film that takes more risks than he usually does.
Whitaker is a commercial airline pilot who manages to get himself through the transient nature of his job by boozing and snorting cocaine. In fact, the film begins with Whitaker waking up late and doing both the morning he is supposed to fly from Florida to Atlanta, arguing with his ex-wife on the phone about their son’s private school tuition bills as one of his stewardesses, Trina (the gorgeous Nadine Velazquez) dresses. When Whitaker arrives for his flight he is just barely in the right state of mind to fly, but when a mechanical failure threatens to crash the plane Whitaker manages to land it in a tension-filled suspenseful scene that has to be seen to be believed. Though Whitaker manages to land the plane in an empty field with few casualties and is initially hailed as a hero, toxicology tests casts his state of mind in doubt. Though it’s clear to Whitaker that the plane itself was at fault and his old friend and union representative (Bruce Greenwood) recognizes this, the doubt builds up against Whitaker and he sinks deeper into his alcoholism as he realizes that the last thing he ever needed was more attention paid to his personal problems. Indeed, whether or not the alcohol and drugs caused the crash becomes moot, and in order to avoid jail Whitaker needs to hide the fact that he was intoxicated — something that he finds impossible to do as alcohol and drugs are also his only coping mechanisms.
The scenes of the crash and the tense moments preceding it are frightening in a way that horror films could never replicate, and the effects are so vivid that I doubt 3-D could improve them in any way. It’s a welcome return to live action for Zemeckis, a director who has always been on the cutting edge of special effects. In a way, these scenes belong to another movie — a Tony Scott directed action-thriller, like Washington and Scott’s Unstoppable — and in a less compelling narrative these early suspenseful scenes could cause the following hour and a half of the film to deflate and drag, though Flight risks that toward the end of the film. Equally wonderful is the cast. Little needs to be say about Washington’s performance except that I find it hard to believe that anyone else could so comfortably vacillate between hero and scumbag as he does in this film. As for the supporting cast, John Goodman, in particular, is ingenious as Whitaker’s dealer in a very Dude Lebowski-ish role. Goodman’s screen-time amounts to less than ten minutes, but every second is golden. Also great is Don Cheadle as Whitaker’s lawyer, Kelly Riley as a recovering addict who becomes romantically involved with Whitaker, and Melissa Leo as an NTSB investigator who is game on pinning the crash on Whitaker. The classic rock soundtrack is also brilliant (Goodman’s character calls Whitaker a “rock star” when he is still hailed as a hero, and it’s easy to see the connection between Whitaker’s character and a 1970s drug-fueled rock god — the soundtrack helps with that connection). In particular, there is a really clever use of a muzak version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that plays toward the end of the film that’s absolutely perfect.
Where Flight wavers is in its overblown length and its final scenes — as I said, Zemeckis does take risks in this film, but ultimately he is a commercial filmmaker. I’d say I’m a fan of Zemeckis — Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are among my top 50 or so films, and both Forrest Gump and Castaway have their strong points despite not taking many risks. Flight falls in the latter category as a film that is a great product overall but ultimately goes for the easier, feel-good route than the much darker, more risky direction it could go in. In fact, it seems perfectly set up to go somewhere darker, but Zemeckis (and perhaps screenwriter John Gatins as well) thought it better to put a nice bow on it. But in a year in which heroism has been questioned more than ever, it’s unfortunately harder to believe in humanity’s capacity for telling the truth. There are also so many scenes I need to see of a drunk, surly Whitaker to get the idea that he’s an alcoholic. Then again, as much as I like Zemeckis it’s fair to say subtlety was never a strong point of his storytelling.
Flight manages to be a solid thriller and a moving drama that hits some great emotional peaks, but I’m not ready to declare it as one of the better films of the year. True, the acting is wonderful and the crash sequence is edge-of-your-seat filmmaking at its best, but at over two hours Flight drags in its final minutes when it really ought to soar. I’m not sure whether to blame the director or screenwriter here, but somebody should have known better.
Rating: Though exhilarating at many points, that also contributes to the film’s overall inconsistency (7.5/10).