When you have a team that includes Robert Zemeckis (director of notable films such as Forrest Gump and Castaway) and always reliable actor Denzel Washington in the lead, you would think the film would have to be a smashing success; however, Flight is a film with a less than great story and is more about the main character. Just as with Daniel Day Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, here we have a vehicle that has almost been crafted to bring Mr. Washington another Oscar, with complete disregard for the audience in terms of the entertainment or credibility factors.
Washington plays Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (with the heroic alliteration completely intended) who is an ace pilot of the skies. We first see him lying in bed with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), and it quickly becomes obvious that they have had a night of passion fueled by drugs and alcohol. It’s an interesting set-up in that we know from the very beginning that Whitaker has an Achilles’ heel: he is a full-blown alcoholic.
Of course, the conflict is ramped up a notch when bad weather comes in, and he is ready to take the helm of a plane as captain. Sort of like the Shakespearean character behind the curtain whom the audience knows is there but the characters do not, we understand from the start that Whip is probably not fit to perform his duties. After take-off the plane encounters difficulties, but Whip is able to right the ship and all seems well. To add insult to the audience’s injury, Whip takes small vodka bottles, mixes them with orange juice, and continues his apparently downward spiral, which is foreshadowing of things to come.
Things go from bad to worse when the plane starts a steep descent and co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) tries to assist Whip as best as he can. Since there apparently has been a catastrophic loss of systems, Whip has a quick solution to try to right the situation: he flies the plane upside down. This amazingly rights the plane and then he turns it back to correct position before slamming into a church steeple and then crashing the plane in a field.
When Whip regains consciousness, he is informed that Katerina and five other people died, but he is seen as a hero for saving 96 other passengers and crew and for steering the plane away from populated areas. Of course, we know what’s behind the curtain and that Whip was drunk when flying that plane; therefore, is it only a matter of time before tests prove this and that he will be criminally charged?
This is the set-up, and I just wish there was more to admire here. The first act involving the plane crash is the best part of the film, so that should tell you something. It is obvious that Zemeckis knows how to film a plane going down (remember that horrific scene in Castaway), but then he lets things come undone. As does Spielberg with Lewis in Lincoln, Zemeckis allows the camera to linger a long time on Washington’s face, giving us close-ups of bloody eyes and his contorted visage. Making this kind of image dominate the big screen sets us up for the premise that Whip is a tortured soul, and we want to feel for him, but then the script keeps getting in the way.
John Gatins is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but I would think this has more to do with creating the role for Washington, crafting lines and action that push him into nominee status. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened, but it’s obvious this is a role that is made for the guy with the right acting chops. As usual, Washington is that guy (for the most part), but even he has to play along with his direction and say the lines that are written for him.
When Whip meets fellow substance abuser Nicole (an outstanding Kelly Reilly), it seems he may have found his soul mate in her equally damaged heroin addict. Although they become romantic, Nicole wants to get her life together and be sober; unfortunately, Whip does not recognize that she could be his salvation and continues to sink deeper and deeper into alcoholic oblivion. We wonder why such a smart and talented guy like Whip would let this happen to himself, but perhaps that is the whole point.
Whip is also alienated from his wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son (Justin Martin), who know what’s behind the curtain and want no part of him. His old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) try to keep him clean, but Whip continues getting himself into jams and reporters start stalking him. Even after Nicole leaves him, Whip is unable to get himself straightened out, and it is imperative that he do so before an impending NTSB hearing.
While all of this seems like it has infinite dramatic possibilities, the payoff is less than satisfying. Perhaps my biggest gripe with this film is that Washington’s character is at times so despicable that I found no reason to want him to succeed; furthermore, for him to triumph means that I would want him to successfully lie about being drunk and get away with it. At least in Castaway we have no conflicted feelings about wanting Tom Hanks to get off that island, but here it is a ping pong effect of wanting Whip to get caught but then not wanting it.
It is difficult to move forward without giving anything away, so let it suffice to say that Washington’s fine acting takes us into the final act taking deep breaths. We are unsure what will happen, but the continuing problem I had was knowing too much. In a film like Doubt we have a different problem: is the priest guilty or not? Here we already know Whip is guilty, so the issues are not as pressing. In the end it is more a question of do we care enough about Whip and the story, and I just didn’t feel as if I got to the place I needed to be as a viewer.
It bothers me that what could have been an amazing premise gets squandered here. Washington does the job and then some, but he is like a guy in full scuba gear being dropped into a baby pool. Yes, he is ready for anything, but his surroundings do not warrant his capability or preparedness. Washington makes the effort here, but the results are less than satisfying and left me feeling like something was missing.
By the time we get to the denouement, there is a pretty much standard kind of ending that left me wanting more. It’s as if Zemeckis has forgotten all about why life is like a box of chocolates, but sadly here we know what we’re getting and it’s just not enough.
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