Friday, November 23, 2012


 3 / 5 

Denzel Washington soars in Flight, which also boasts a horrifyingly intense, 15-minute sequence that depicts the last few minutes of a passenger jet.  On the strength of those two elements alone, it's worth your while -- but its last act brings it crashing to the ground, and much like that airliner itself, it's barely saved by Washington's extraordinary efforts.

About 20 years ago, director Peter Weir made Fearless, a fascinating, hypnotic, sometimes downright bizarre and frequently impenetrable film about the aftermath of a plane crash.  Though both movies boast some of the most white-knuckle airplane moments ever set to film, in all other regards, Flight is the anti-Fearless.  It's got nary a subtle or ambiguous moment.

Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis, a director who has of late been more preoccupied with animation and digital motion-capture films, but whose previous movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away provided world views that were hardly nuanced.  Flight is a bit more mature, but only a little, because it takes an extraordinarily complicated sequence and distills it to its simplest level: Flight is about a bad man who did a good thing, and now that good thing -- namely, piloting a doomed jet plane to relative safety -- could redeem his lost soul, if only he'd let it.

The movie mostly works, but like that airplane's faulty equipment, the screenplay makes everyone involved have to work that much harder to bring it all under control.  For instance, there's this setup, straight out of a Syd Field screenwriting manual: The airplane is plummeting on its back over Atlanta, and just happens to pass directly over the apartment building in which a pretty heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) lives.  Hours later, Reilly is in the hospital, heroic pilot Whip Whitaker is in the hospital and they meet-kinda-cute in the stairwell, where they're each sneaking a cigarette.  Out of nowhere, they're joined by a cancer patient who exists solely for the purpose of reminding them that they should Make Every Day Count.

It's this kind of pat simplicity that undermines the intensity and seriousness of the story at its core.  Later in the movie, as it heads into its Syd Field-approved Third Act, Flight relies on a deus ex machina plot contrivance so unbelievable it's hard to forgive.  Washington's character is a hardcore substance abuser, and much of the plot turns on whether anyone will discover just how drunk and high he was when he took to the skies that fateful morning.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal just what this out-of-the-blue plot machination is, but this is where a screenplay that has already taken the easy way out really cheats.  And it's where it became readily apparent that as much as Flight wants us to think it's about real people in real situations, it's just a screenplay contrived to fit a neatly prescribed formula.

(The movie also boasts one of the most shameless uses of thematic music imaginable: When Washington's drug dealer, played by jocular John Goodman, arrives on screen, his appearance is accompanied by The Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil.  Get it?  Get it?)

Here's the problematic part: Much of Flight is really, really good.  It's clear that everyone involved wanted to make a serious movie that looked genuinely at a real issue.  The acting is exquisite, including Kelly Reilly as the beautiful heroin addict with whom Capt. Whitaker falls in love; Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as investigators on Whitaker's side; and Tamara Tunie as a professional, caring flight attendant.

It has a stunning accident sequence that ranks among the best scenes of its kind ever put to film.  It's believable, it's riveting, it will make you think twice about getting on a plane.

Besides being impeccably crafted, it has that central performance by Washington that avoids any of the actor's customary haughtiness or technical hesitancy.  I've often found Washington to be an actor who unintentionally reminds the audience that he's Acting.  Not here.  He's natural, he's honest, he's stunning.

He carries that commanding presence through to his final two scenes, which showcase exactly what's wrong (and right) with Flight.  One of them is a monologue whose contents are impressively pedestrian.  The speech double-underlines every point the film has been trying to make, just so we don't forget the Capital-M Moral.  But, man, try taking your eyes off of Washington.  It's just not possible.

He alone elevates Flight just to the level that it's worth seeing; if only it had been able to match his lofty altitude.

Viewed Nov. 23, 2012 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


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