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Film Review | Despite rough edges, ‘Flight’ takes off

Film elevated by Denzel Washington’s nuanced performance

Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 08:11

Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” initially appears to be ripped from the headlines, a story parallel to that of pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroics during his emergency landing on the icy Hudson River in 2009. “Flight” might well have turned into a melodramatic feel−good movie by replicating the “Miracle on the Hudson,” but writer John Gatins and director Zemeckis provide the audience with an experience far richer than one which might be derived from the simple replication of an uplifting news story.

“Flight,” a return to conventional drama by a director who has devoted the last decade to whimsical motion−capture films, begins with an improbable crash−landing in southern Georgia. Following the crash, the plane’s pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is subject to an investigation into the flight’s failure. There is consensus in the public and media that Whitaker deserves to be deemed a national hero, but the inner circle of the investigation team is aware of other possible reasons for the plane’s malfunction. The story focuses on Whitaker’s days leading up to the FAA hearing about the crash.

The terrifying twenty−minute sequence depicting the actual flight is so masterfully constructed that it might very reasonably scare viewers into never boarding a plane again. Zemeckis assiduously builds the scene to generate maximum tension. The audience is aware that Whitaker has consumed alcohol and snorted cocaine prior to take−off, and Whitaker’s co−pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), is visibly agitated by Whitaker’s demeanor in the cockpit. When the plane begins to dive, however, it is Whitaker who firmly takes control and maneuvers the crippled plane to safety.

Between scenes leading up to the flight, Zemeckis introduces a side plotline involving a female heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who fails in her attempt to “keep clean” and overdoses. The minor storyline seems out of place at first and the viewer can’t help but wonder how the dual plots will be complementary, but after the crash Whitaker becomes linked with Nicole, whose character provides a surprising second dimension exploring the harrowing difficulties of drug addiction.

Washington’s performance ranks as one of his best, standing alongside his roles in “Glory” (1989) and “Training Day” (2001). His incisive portrayal of an alcoholic who uses cocaine to stabilize his cognitive abilities is both frightening and disturbing. Washington employs a stammer to great effect whenever his character is questioned about his drinking.

Well−wrought characters portrayed by John Goodman, Don Cheadle and Melissa Leo add to the film’s verisimilitude. Goodman provides much−needed comic relief as Whitaker’s raucous friend and drug−dealer, while Cheadle is detached and icy as Whitaker’s self−serving attorney. Leo, in a cameo, establishes a vivid presence as Whitaker’s interrogator, the only one to force Whitaker into acknowledging his compromising addictions.

Of note is Zemeckis’ thematic weaving of predetermined fate within “Flight.” Scenes in the film often rotate about a core suggestion that no event is random and that the flight’s crash, in particular, was destined to occur. Cheadle’s character fights for the cause of the flight failure to be labeled as an “act of God.” From his hospital bed, Evans heatedly blames his injuries on Whitaker’s substance abuse, then abruptly transforms into a devout believer of a predetermined plan who sees the crash as one link in the chain. While this facet of the overall storyline comes across as contrived at times, the idea is threaded fittingly throughout and adds another layer to the film’s implications.

Despite the length of the film, and the early placement of the harrowing flight scene, Zemeckis succeeds in holding the audience’s attention throughout. One might quibble with some mawkish moments near the film’s conclusion, but “Flight” certainly exceeds expectations and Washington’s portrayal of a troubled man in desperate need of self−direction deserves high praise.

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