Robert Zemeckis, before he abandoned live action a dozen years ago in favor of motion-capture animation, specialized in big films about big themes and big subjects. Time travel (“Back to the Future”)! First contact with alien civilization (“Contact”)! The entire history of the baby boom generation (“Forrest Gump!”) Humans and cartoons, living together (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”)! The nature of time and space itself (“Cast Away!”)
Returning to live action with the new film “Flight,” Zemeckis tackles a big subject- alcoholism and addiction- but gives the subject a stripped down, intimate feel that’s very much at odds with most of the director’s work. The film has its problems, but its buoyed by a serious treatment of its subject and a dynamite performance by Denzel Washington, one of the best of his career.
The script was written by John Gatins- of such noted past projects as “Hard Ball,” “Coach Carter” and the infamous robot boxing movie “Real Steel”- and it posits a delicious, high-concept question: What if Sully Sullenberger, when he landed in the Hudson, had been drunk and high?
Whip Whitaker (Washington), established early on as an alcoholic and drug addict, pilots a passenger jet through an in-flight emergency, landing in an empty air field and saving the lives of just about everyone aboard. It’s a brilliantly staged action sequence that’s extremely tense, even though we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.
The bulk of the rest of the movie consists of Washington battling his addictions, pursuing a romance with a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) and fighting the legal case against him with the help of a union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a cocky lawyer (Don Cheadle.) He also struggles to keep the media at bay, with rodent-like CNN host Piers Morgan standing in for the inquisitive press.
Washington’s performance is the best thing about the movie. He’s played bad guys before, and even alcoholics, but I’ve never seen Washington go to such a low place before, and show such extreme vulnerability.
There also a handful of really great small performances, including great single-scene cameo by James Badge Dale as a philosophical cancer patient, Melissa Leo as a prosecutor and Leo’s fellow former Homicide: Life on the Street cop, the great character actor Peter Gerety, as an airline CEO.
A hippie-inflicted John Goodman, also steals a couple of scenes as a drug dealer, always introduced with the not-exactly-subtle “Sympathy For the Devil,” as he were a pro wrestler and the song his ring entrance music. Zemeckis must be trying to compete with Martin Scorsese for some “Most Overuse of the Rolling Stones by a Director” award.
So what’s wrong with “Flight”? The film spends a great deal lot of time early on setting up the intricate legal procedures related to the case, but never really resolves them, including the question of who, ultimately, was to blame. I know not everyone finds this stuff fascinating, but I do, and the film glosses over the wrap-up of it.
Then there’s the film’s treatment of religion, which is ever-present but sort of muddled. God is mentioned frequently, and the plane nearly hits a church on its way down. But “Flight” doesn’t really have a whole lot to say on God’s role in events like this. And don’t even get me started on the scene in a hospital room in which Washington’s copilot confronts him, but then suddenly asks to pray with him- a scene that dabbles in ridiculous mock-the-yokels humor.
But ultimately, Washington’s performance- and Zemeckis’ long-awaited return to movies with actual people in them- makes “Flight” worth seeing.