Denzel Washington acts up a storm in director Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action after years of concentrating on motion-capture animation. In “Flight,” he plays a airline pilot who maneuvers a badly malfunctioning plane to a “miracle” crash landing despite the fact that he’s an alcoholic who slept with one of his flight attendants (Nadine Velasquez) the night before the accident and had taken a hit of cocaine to wake himself up from his hangover and few mini-bottles of vodka, mixed in orange juice, on the plane. Will a NTSB investigation find him responsible for the crash—and the six deaths that resulted? Or will he be able to wiggle out of responsibility with the help of his union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and the slick lawyer (Don Cheadle) brought on board to defend him?
This plot is embellished with plenty of extras to justify a 138-minute running-time, of course. And so Washington’s Whip Walker takes up with alcoholic heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), whom he meets in the hospital after the crash, and who becomes a sort of conscience to his continuing self-destructive conduct, joining AA and urging him to quit drinking. He also has to face his angry ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) while trying to reconnect with his estranged son (Justin Martin). And he needs to secure supportive testimony from the surviving crew members, notably chief flight attendant (Tamar Tunie), an old friend, and the censorious co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) who obviously had doubts about Whip’s condition the moment he stepped into the cockpit. There are also some virtuoso cadenzas designed to lighten the mood, one involving the crassly pragmatic owner of the airline (Peter Gerety), and several showcasing John Goodman as the pilot’s friendly supplier, a showboating motormouth the actor plays with gleeful overkill. And just in case we fail to get the point, screenwriter John Gatins inserts another big moment when a garrulous, manic cancer patient (James Badge Dale) accosts Whip and Nicole in the hospital stairwell, delivering an extended diatribe designed to point up the preciousness of life.
But while Zemeckis shows that he hasn’t lost his touch in the various secondary threads—even though he often goes for the obvious effects–it’s the central plot that really engages dramatically, and Washington who puts it across with a performance of depth and resonance. In recent years it’s sometimes seemed that he’s been coasting on his past work and his natural charisma. Here he digs deeply into the part, eschewing the leading-man comfort zone he so easily inhabits and delivering a risky turn that practically dares the viewer to sympathize with this guy who virtually revels in his addiction.
The plot leads up to a confrontation at a NTSB hearing between Whitaker and chief crash investigator Margaret Thomason (Melissa Leo), and it’s here that “Flight” itself crashes to Hollywood earth, exchanging the cynicism that’s dominated the latter part of the picture until then to opt for an upbeat, redemptive ending that’s overextended and didactic before closing with a question that was far more telling when Robert Bolt used it just before the intermission card appeared in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
But one probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Zemeckis, who’s almost always evinced a pretty fine-tuned sense of what viewers want. To have taken Whitaker to the darkest place rather than giving the audience the consolation they long for would have been the harder—and truly artistic—decision. But it was probably beyond the ability of the director of “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away” to make.
But despite that, “Flight” gives you the opportunity to enjoy watching Washington again at the top of his game, Goodman jazzing things up with every appearance, and a plot that, until the last reel, unfolds with real bite, interspersed though it is with melodramatic interruptions. Reilly carries off her role adequately, while both Cheadle and Greenwood do considerably better than that, and the remainder of the cast are all fine. On the technical side the production is strong across the board, with the plane crash sequence rivaling the most effective ever set to film—kudos to the effects crew. Alan Silvestri’s score isn’t much beyond routine, however.
It’s a pretty safe bet that when Oscar nominations are announced, Washington’s name will be on the list. Zemeckis’ movie is an iffier proposition, but it’s a mostly gripping character study of a man who’s half hero and half villain, and it certainly covers the bases needed to get it there.