While Robert Zemeckis’ last two films – “A Christmas Carol” and “Beowolf” — didn’t garner much praise from critics, there is no denying he has a unique style of storytelling utilizing a very specific visual language that plays very well in his new film, “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Nadine Velazquez, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie and Brian Geraghty.
Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a commercial airline pilot whose life seems to be going in a downward spiral. Whip spends his nights with one of his occasional flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez), his mornings getting wasted on alcohol and cocaine, and then his days shuttling passengers back and forth on multiple flights. Well, it all seems to fall apart as soon as his airplane does in flight and it might just be all of those mind-altering substances that allowed him to break all conventions and perform unprecedented maneuvers when the plane is stuck in a nosedive with none of the controls responding and engines failing.
The movie’s first half hour or so is compelling with edge-of-your-seat suspense and action as he inverts the plane upside down and lands the plane with very few casualties. When he awakens in the hospital, he is being called a hero, but it isn’t long before he learns that the paramedics drew his blood at the scene and the results came back positive for alcohol and cocaine and now the airline is using that to cast doubt on whether he was the savior of the crash or actually the cause of it.
He immediately runs and hides at the abandoned farmhouse where he grew up and learned to fly from his father. His friend and union boss Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) hires heavy-hitting attorney (Don Cheadle) to try to suppress the toxicology report, all the while Whip is constantly struggling with his addictions. He does alright staying away from the booze for awhile, and he even finds a further cause to stay sober when he locates another addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) he had met at the hospital and takes her away from her horrible living situation and has her stay with him at his remote hideout.
As the story continues to progress and the pressure is on for public hearings and interviews, Whip once again loses control and spirals down into the abyss of his addictions, even shocking fellow addict Nicole at his complete lack of control as he once again begins to slip into drunken stupors. Can he kick the habits and stay clean long enough to even prove his innocence to the court or will his addictions get the best of him in the end?
The opening sequences alone offer enough reason to see this film as you get one of the most intense plane sequences to date, but it is the dramatic underbelly of this film and the latter half of it that drives the expansion of these characters as you get to know their faults, weaknesses and their real courage. Denzel Washington is at the top of his game as this man you sympathize with but as the same time cringe when he loses control. He has so much emotion in the role and a deep-rooted sadness that you hope everything works out for him in the end. As a star, Washington really steps outside of his comfort zone for this role and goes to a place we really haven’t seen him before and the risks do pay off with this stellar performance.
Kelly Reilly really surprised me in her very humanistic performance as the secondary character also struggling with an addiction. I’m only familiar with her from a small role in the recent “Sherlock Holmes” films, but she gets to showcase some serious acting chops in “Flight” and I think she did an outstanding job. As usual, Don Cheadle is great as the hard-nosed attorney who will do anything to get his client out of trouble, but one of the biggest surprise smaller roles for me was that of John Goodman, who plays Harling Mays, the drug dealer and friend to Whip. His candor and humor worked well in the role that could have easily come off as a typical peddler of illegal substances, but he seems like a laid-back Californian who never outgrew his hippy days and I honestly smiled every time he came on screen. One last small role that really stood out to me, and added to the film’s humor, was that of Brian Geraghty, who plays the co-pilot during the ill-fated flight and his interaction with Washington the entire flight is uneasy and lends itself to so pretty hysterical moments leading into the tenseness and suspense of the crash.
After a 12-year absence from live-action films, I believe that Zemeckis has crafted a top-notch drama here that lets its star shine through and pull off some great performances. With a great blend of action, humor, emotion, suspense and thrilling moments, the film’s running time of nearly two hours and 26 minutes rarely ever seems to drag, but in my opinion it wouldn’t have hurt the film to cut it under two hours long, just to keep the energy flowing that much quicker.
This is a film that fans of Zemeckis, Washington and all of the many other talented individuals will love and appreciate for the many dimensions the film explores –addiction, heartbreak, struggles, triumphs, spirituality and faith all come into scope as the movie progresses.
This is a great return for Zemeckis and once again a stellar performance from a seasoned actor who might gain the attention of the awards committees this forthcoming award season.
“Flight” is rated R for drug/alcohol use, language, sexuality/nudity and intense action and lands in theaters today.
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