Even With Denzel Washington, "Flight" Never Takes Off

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 31, 2012

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Fly Guy: Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington stars as hotshot pilot Whip Whitaker in “Flight,” directed by Robert Zemeckis.

The trouble with movies about addiction is that they all tend to be the same. There are only so many ways we can run through the standard parabola of denial, rock-bottom, relapse and recovery before it starts to feel like déjà vu. Of course, these pictures keep getting made; they’re catnip for actors, particularly during awards season. They’re also classy ways for filmmakers to get away with wallowing in a little bit of depravity before the inevitable third-act sanctimony kicks in, and then everybody in Hollywood politely applauds, throwing around words like “courageous.”

The best movies featuring addiction—Oslo, August 31st and The Master are excellent recent examples—are about the characters, not The Problem. Flight is about The Problem.

Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a hotshot pilot for a regional Georgia airline. (Any alliterative resemblance to Sully Sullenburger is presumably intended.) He’s first glimpsed in a hungover stupor, profanely arguing on the phone with his ex-wife between swigs from one of last night’s half-finished beers, while a naked flight attendant cavorts around the nondescript airport hotel room. Whip cuts them both a couple lines of blow. Time to go to work.

Yes, it’s shocking. We’re not used to seeing movie stars like Denzel snorting rails, and there’s more debauchery in these first five minutes of Flight than in the entire previous 35-year career of director Robert Zemeckis, a family-friendly technical whiz kid who peaked with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before collecting a shelf full of Oscars because people thought Forrest Gump was profound. This casual squalor is the stuff of indie movie territory, instantly clanging against the bright colors and square compositions of Zemeckis’ slick Hollywood gloss.

Whip soon takes to the skies, surreptitiously pouring himself a screwdriver and even catching a quick nap in the cockpit before a fluke mechanical failure sends his aircraft spiraling into a dive. Zemeckis’ Cast Away set a gold standard for movie plane crashes, and Flight’s white-knuckle, supremely harrowing opening set-piece seems designed to top it. With the kind of superhuman confidence one tends to find in loaded coke heads, our Captain Whitaker inverts the plane and miraculously saves 96 of the 102 souls on board. He’s a national hero, the greatest pilot anyone has ever seen.

Only catch: He was smashed.

The more interesting aspects of Flight cover the procedural cover-up that follows, aided by Bruce Greenwood’s honey-voiced union rep and Don Cheadle’s persnickety attorney. The less interesting parts, which unfortunately comprise the majority of this picture’s absurdly bloated 139-minute running time, strand Washington at his late grandfather’s farmhouse, attempting to kick booze and drugs before a federal hearing that may very well land Whip in prison. He climbs on the wagon, he falls off the wagon. He climbs on the wagon again, and then guess what happens next? Rinse, wash, repeat.

The monotony becomes numbing, and I suppose it’s something of a backhanded compliment to say that Washington may be a bit too good here at playing an emotionally stunted, self-pitying drunk clinging desperately to denial. A sketchily drawn courtship with Kelly Reilly’s winsome heroin addict doesn’t allow the character to open up very much, and he spends most of the picture locked away from the audience, an aloof figure we must sit back and watch self-destruct over and over again until it’s eventually time for everybody to recite the Serenity Prayer so the movie can finally end.

Screenwriter John Gatins recently penned that robot-boxing abomination Real Steel, and Flight won’t seem like much of a departure if you stop to notice how strictly both movies adhere to rigid formulas. Though wildly diverse in concept and subject matter, neither film contains a moment you didn’t already predict at least 20 minutes in advance.

After the initial plane crash, even Zemeckis seems to lose interest. Flight contains the stodgiest of this restless technical innovator’s camera work. Visually, it’s a lot of antiseptic sets and empty hangars, jostled along by laughably obvious classic-rock music cues and a naggingly ersatz digital video sheen. The movie briefly comes to life during two impeccably timed laugh-track visits from John Goodman as a motor-mouthed coke dealer, acting as if he’s wandered in from The Big Lebowski and temporarily shaking off the air of over-determined glumness.

But the question lingers: Would Whip Whitaker have had the cojones to attempt such a nutso, life-saving maneuver if he hadn’t been loaded? A late-game fake-out almost makes an argument for enablers, but Flight discreetly backs away from such provocations, settling instead for easy homilies and three extra endings to remind us it’s once again time to politely applaud while throwing around words like “courageous.”

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