Flight (Paramount Pictures, R)

film flight_75Whip Whitaker is a bold character because he constantly makes the wrong decisions.

 

film flight_500

I’ve missed Robert Zemeckis. After a decade spent in the uncanny valley, he is finally back among the living, making a fairly straightforward character drama with just a little bit of extra flair. Flight stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, an airplane pilot with a serious drinking problem. One day, something goes wrong with the plane he’s flying and he resorts to some daring stunts in order to land it. He does land it, saving the lives of almost everyone on board. He is hailed as a hero, but then it is found that he had alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. The majority of the film takes place in the time between the crash and a hearing to find if his drunkenness was responsible for the death of six people.

This is certainly an intriguing plot, but the movie isn’t really about that. The crash and the fallout from it are just plot devices to frame a story about addiction. We’ve seen plenty of addiction movies, but this one feels different. Rather than the steady, depressing, downward spiral of a Requiem for a Dream or a Leaving Las Vegas, this movie has ups and downs, much like real life. Immediately after the crash, Whitaker decides to quit drinking and disposes of all his booze. Ironically, the revealing of his condition to the public is what drives him back to the bottle.

The movie is clear that alcoholism is a problem, but it also shows how one could be taken in by it. Some audience members may wonder if Whitaker would have attempted the life-saving maneuver had he been sober. The film’s stance on cocaine is questionable at best. Like the best addiction movies, it shows the good times along with the bad.

Whitaker is a bold character because he constantly makes the wrong decisions. Audiences tend to like heroes who are less flawed than they are, and Whip ranges from pathetic to downright deplorable. Luckily, he is played by Denzel Washington, one of the most charismatic actors we have. Washington has managed to perfectly straddle the line between respected thespian and movie star. He is likable enough that he can go to these darker places without losing the audience.

Washington is backed up by a fantastic supporting cast. Kelly Reilly is the heart of the film as a drug addict who recognizes that Whip has a problem, even though he refuses to acknowledge it. The always-reliable character actor Bruce Greenwood plays his friend who tries to help him through the ordeal. John Goodman gives a typically scene-stealing performance, his second this month after Argo. But the whole movie is really stolen by James Badge Dale, who has one scene as a patient in a hospital and completely wins the audience over. Dale was also in The Grey earlier this year, which featured another excellent plane crash.

I don’t often think of Robert Zemeckis as an auteur, but this film reeks of his touch. His last live action film, Cast Away, also began with a plane crash. Here, the movie I thought most of was Contact, his most underrated work: The media circus, the climactic hearing, and the question of whether or not to believe in God are all elements which are important to both films. Flight feels somewhat restrained in terms of camera work, but the cinematography is still a little bit more interesting than your typical drama. Zemeckis’ next film will be a return to motion capture, but I kind of wish he would stick with what he does best.

Flight is a very entertaining movie. The melodrama is balanced by a good spattering of comedy, and I was never bored throughout its extensive runtime. It’s sure to get lots of Oscar attention, which it doesn’t really deserve, but I can’t fault anyone who likes it. I, too, liked it, quite a bit. Sometimes it’s nice to have a quiet little character-driven movie—with a huge airplane crash at the beginning. | Sean Lass

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