With Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Don Cheadle. Written by John Gatins. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence. 139 minutes.
With FLIGHT, director Robert Zemeckis returns from his several year folly of motion-capture animation (including the creepy “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf”) with this solid if formulaic film about an alcoholic spiraling ever downward. What makes this different from genre classics like “The Lost Weekend,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Leaving Las Vegas” is an action-packed first act and a bravura performance by Denzel Washington. He’ll face some tough competition, but he’ll likely secure an Oscar nomination for his turn here.
Washington is “Whip” Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot, who has a big drinking and drug problem. How severe? He’s not above lifting a couple of vodka bottles to have a snort during the flight. However the flight he’s on this morning is about to face some severe problems. Fortunately, he is a very good pilot and how he brings down a plane in which most of the passengers and crew survive is a genuinely thrilling experience.
“Most,” however, does not mean all. The inevitable investigation starts probing Whitaker’s state during the flight, and he has to rely on his enablers to avoid the consequences of his actions. This includes his friend and union rep (Bruce Greenwood), his lawyer (Don Cheadle), and his dealer (a scene-stealing John Goodman). Whitaker keeps promising to clean up, even dumping all his booze down the drain, but he’s soon replenishing his supply. Along the way he meets another addict (Kelly Reilly) who is trying to stay clean and who could be a way out for him.
It’s in the second half of the film that the film falters as they repeat the same plot point over and over: Whitaker promises to clean up his act but then he succumbs to temptation again. There’s a point being made. Someone like Whitaker must hit bottom before he is able to fully face the mess he has made of his life. Washington conveys this in what is rightly being hailed as one of the highlights of his stellar career. However dramatically, there reaches a point where we in the audience get it and it’s time to move on. At well over two hours, this is a movie that could have used someone urging Zemeckis and company to cut to the chase.
The moment of truth is an excruciating and satisfying payoff, reminding us that Whitaker is not an evil person, but someone who keeps giving in to his weakness because there have been so many people helping him get away with it. Although the film has a strong supporting cast, this is essentially a star vehicle for Washington, and he runs with it. His Whitaker is alternately charismatic and foolhardy, surviving great risks yet clearly heading to disaster. As with some of the year’s other great performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master” and Daniel Day-Lewis in the upcoming “Lincoln”), Washington makes it all look easy. When he’s on screen, our attention is riveted.
“Flight” is a solid film with much to recommend it, even if it’s an oft-told tale.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.