A pie-eyed Denzel flies a plane – and keeps the story aloft – in Robert Zemekis’s new aviation drama
Denzel Washington as Capt Whip Whitaker in Flight
Film Title: Flight
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly
Running Time: 138 min
A pie-eyed Denzel flies a plane – and keeps the story aloft – in Robert Zemekis’s new aviation drama.
It is hard to think of a film as weirdly paced or as oddly structured as Robert Zemeckis’s largely successful return to live-action drama. The first 30 minutes of Flight feature one of the most thrilling and disturbing aviation catastrophes ever committed to celluloid. Then, having flung us to earth in such spectacular fashion, Mr Zemeckis settles down to a perfectly acceptable, somewhat flabby, occasionally implausible tale of alcoholism and redemption.
It’s not a game of two halves. It’s a game of a quarter and another three quarters. Happily the flawless central performance by Denzel Washington keeps the story aloft (figuratively, if not literally) throughout the movie’s unforgiving running time.
Washington is perfect casting for Capt Whip Whitaker. That famously symmetrical actor looks like a hero, but he can also access a mean, disagreeable streak. We first meet the airline pilot hoovering cocaine and draining beer bottles in a Florida motel. An hour or so later, he’s pulling himself into the cockpit of an airliner bound for Atlanta. Aspirin and black coffee are gulped back. His altimeter not yet stable, Whip drains a few vodka miniatures into a bottle of orange juice and administers further self-medication.
A thousand other publications having already made the point, we should probably avoid pointing out that what follows will prohibit the picture from ever turning up as on-flight entertainment (too late). Faced with appalling weather, Whip takes the courageous, possibly reckless decision to surge through the clouds at bulkhead-juddering speed. The ruse works and the plane finds placid air. Some time later, however, a catastrophic malfunction annihilates the hydraulics and Whip is forced to take absurdly drastic measures.
Is it possible to fly a plane upside down? Maybe so. Maybe not. All you need to know is that Zemeckis and Washington convince us the operation might just be feasible.
There is much to ponder in that sequence. Zemeckis and his writers allow us – without any prodding – to speculate that booze may have blurred Whip’s perception of peril and spurred him towards greater heroism. Then again, perhaps he caused the malfunction by drunkenly forcing the plane to the limits of its capabilities after take off.
At any rate, initially celebrated as a hero, Whip is soon forced to face up to difficult questions. A toxicology report delivers bad news. His co-pilot, who barely survives the crash, threatens to spill further beans. Whip sinks into a morass of depression, spirits and self-pity.
Zemeckis, who has spent the last decade directing odd motion-capture pieces such as The Polar Express and Beowulf, doesn’t know what do with the film’s messy tail. Coming across like a vanilla Scorsese, he leans the camera gently towards drug takers while flicking through your dad’s least experimental playlist. Gimme Shelter is there. So is What’s Going On.
We do, inevitably, end up in a courtroom, but, before that happens, Whip is propelled through a ho-hum series of disconnected adventures that do little to illuminate the source of his neuroses. A pointless conversation with a cancer patient cries out to be cut. Kelly Reilly’s turn as a drug user, with whom Whip shacks up, could also be lifted cleanly from the narrative without leaving any dangling ends. John Goodman doesn’t break sweat delivering his comic cut as a colourful dealer.
And yet. Washington works so hard and so effectively that Flight remains watchable. We’ve seen the great man being a jerk. We’ve seen him saving the day. But we’ve never before seen him look so convincingly pathetic. Even Spielberg’s Lincoln feels less like a one-man show. We salute you, cap’n.