After a 12-year hiatus from the land of live-action, Robert Zemeckis returns. Is it a triumphant return? At least for the first 15 minutes or so. In the opening scenes of Flight it seems as if Zemeckis is doing everything he can to make us forget his last two real movies were What Lies Beneath and Castaway. I’d be much happier if I could forget he ever descended into the uncanny valley with Polar Express, Beowulf, or A Christmas Carol. Here, nudity, alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana all show up in just the first scene. Next we get put through the wringer in what is definitely one of the most terrifying scenes of turmoil once the plane goes into its dive. Unfortunately, as successful an attempt as the first few opening scenes may be, the remaining two hours of clashing melodrama and black comedy completely ruins everything.
Flight is extremely loosely based on the 2000 fatal flight of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The plane wound up crashing into the ocean in a dive after the pilot’s attempted to fly the plane inverted (upside down). The National Transportation Safety Board determined that inadequate maintenance led to excessive wear and catastrophic failure of a critical flight-control system during flight. The also stated probable cause was “a loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines’ insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.”
Screenwriter John Gatins uses the plane inversion to bring us Flight’s character study of the fictional Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who manages to overcome the dive even if it still results in a crash. Only instead of crashing into the ocean and everyone dying, Whip manages to crash his flight into a field only to lose four passengers and two crew members. What happens after this is an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. What they find is that Whip had a system full of cocaine and alcohol. Since the flight was intended to be only about an hour they did not offer drink service in-flight but two empty bottles of vodka were found in the garbage. Hugh Lang is brought in by the airline to cover up Whip’s toxicology report and get the blame where it belongs, which is the plane’s malfunction. A subplot involving a drug addict rears its head for absolutely no reason as we get put through the motions of a film that tries to make you feel sorry for a man who takes no responsibility for his actions.
The malfunction of the plane was not his fault, but do his heroics make up for his drug and alcohol dependency? Gatins sure wants to try to make you believe that. John Goodman shows up in full “The Dude” mode and Melissa Leo makes a last-minute guest appearance as a prosecutor when Whip is finally forced to take the stand. Whatever movie Goodman walks in from would be a far greater film than this and I would love to see it. Even if Goodman is just playing a coked-up version of “The Dude,” and is probably ad-libbing every line of dialogue. This is when Zemeckis and Washington kick up their game. In the meantime, Flight is stuck with a plodding script which comes as no surprise when Gatins resume consists of Real Steel, Dreamer, Coach Carter, Hardball, and Summer Catch. Now that I mention those damning charges, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, I close my case.