MOVIE REVIEW: Flight
FLIGHT-- 5 STARS
I've hinted at this many times throughout many editorials on this website. To me, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington can do no wrong. A running gag on this website is that a Denzel Washington movie always makes my "10 Best" editorial lists, no matter the topic. In my opinion, he has been the best actor in the business for quite some time. I cannot name a truly bad film that he's starred in and, even if the film itself was a little less-than-good (and there are a small few), Denzel himself is never the reason. No matter the genre or story of the film he's starring in, Denzel brings immediate impact, drama, intensity, and presence. As he was first starting his career, the inevitable comparisons to Sidney Poitier always followed Washington around. I think it's safe to say that the contemporary has surpassed the trailblazer. To me, Denzel Washington has become better than Sidney Poitier ever was. Don't believe me? Go watch Flight.
No actor I know working today can take a feather of character nuance and turn it into a moral fiber of steely resolve with merely a new look or a change of voice inflection the way Denzel can. Washington plays a mess of a man named Whip Whitaker. When you first meet him, he's a captain of sex, drugs, and alcohol until the hotel alarm clock rings, the sexy stewardess (Nadine Velasquez of The League and My Name is Earl) gets dressed, the soundtrack changes, and he puts on the dashing uniform and swagger of being the Southjet Airlines captain he's supposed to be. Fueled by booze and cocaine (and sometimes coffee and cockpit oxygen), Whip is a divorced and estranged deadbeat father who's only remaining friends appear to be his drug dealer Harling Mays (a scenery-chewing John Goodman, who's been busing this fall with Argo and Trouble with the Curve) and an old Navy friend and former fellow pilot Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, trusty as always).
Strutting out of that opening hotel room, Whip heads to work to pilot a flight from Orlando to Atlanta that has to drive through a nasty bit of stormy weather to start. After the weather clears, he hands to the flight controls over to his devout young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty of The Hurt Locker) to sneak a hangover nap. Suddenly, the plane sharply pitches forward into a dive and loses control. When all hell breaks lose and engines start to fail, Whip pulls it together, keeps his cool, and executes a daring and miraculous crash landing in an open field outside of a church. Just as the excellent movie trailers and TV ads hint at, this scene is, without a doubt, the most exciting and heart-pounding ten minutes I've seen in movie in a long time. It makes director Robert Zemeckis's own plane crash scene from Castaway looks like a merry-go-round ride.
Whip's calmness under pressure and incredible skill saves the lives of 96 of the 102 souls on board. Waking up in an Atlanta hospital with minor injuries, he's branded an instant hero and savior. Taking heart of his near-death experience while in recovery, he swears off booze and gravitates towards Nicole (British actress Kelly Reilly), a fellow hospital patient and kindred spirit of addiction with her own flaws and demons. Avoiding the massive media attention, he seeks seclusion at his grandfather's farmhouse in the country and soon gets Nicole to join him.
When Charlie introduces Whip to defense attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), Whip learns the gravity of the post-crash situation for his future. While no one argues his heroics and skill to save lives, the hospital toxicology reports show the massive amounts of alcohol and cocaine that were in his system the day of that tragic flight. With six people dead, the wrong court proceedings and NTSC investigation could shift the blame from mechanical malfunction and "act of God" to his fitness to fly that day. That has Whip facing possible manslaughter charges and extended prison time. The mounting pressure, between this investigation and his addictions, fuels the film from there.
Flight is director Robert Zemeckis's first live-action film since the brilliant Castaway twelve years ago. A blockbuster-maker with the Back to the Future trilogy and an Oscar winner for Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has spent the last decade honing the craft of performance capture animation through The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. To see him return to this extremely high level of traditional filmmaking lets me know that he's still got it.
His technical expertise for kinetic action shines through the camera lens and beyond just the signature crash scene. All the while, much like Forrest Gump, Zemeckis still knows when to seize the quiet moments and internal struggle his lead characters face. The director populates Flight with interesting support characters to match up against Denzel, particularly Reilly and a dynamite little hospital scene with a cancer patient played by James Badge Dale. Balanced with a soft Alan Silvestri piano-flavored score that's worlds away from his trumpeting Avengers work from this summer, the pacing and execution of Flight is flawless.
There will not be enough words in this paragraph to do Denzel Washington's Flight performance justice. Sure, he's got pros around him like Cheadle, Greenwood, and Goodman who are all excellent, but this is Denzel's journey. When I spoke of that shift from nuance to resolve, just watch his pulsating index finger. In one scene, it's an addict's tick. In another, it's a drumbeat for action and focus. It's those little things that lead to my opening admiration that Denzel is just so good at everything he does. He commands the screen even when his character trembles to his inner demons and becomes too hard to watch. With all of the flaws, Denzel gives Whip a core of pride that defines him, even if it becomes his possible undoing. Denzel more than deserves his sixth Academy Award nomination and first since winning Best Actor for Training Day a decade ago.
Overall, Flight, even with a running time over two hours never lets up after that harrowing crash scene. Under different stewardship, a movie like this would run out of gas after such huge first half-hour, but Zemeckis and Washington keep the interest and focus level high. Written by the screenwriter of the cheesy Real Steel of all people, one discovery about Whip reveals another and the plight of his character envelops you during the entire experience. Flight is top-shelf entertainment in this regard. A few weeks back, I declared Ben Affleck's Argo the best movie I have seen so far this year. Flight might just make it a coin flip of a choice.
LESSON #1: BEING COOL UNDER PRESSURE-- Even though Flight is fictional, we all know those people around us that are cool under pressure. They handle stress with ease, aren't nervous speaking in front of people, adapt to situations, and are capable of making the tough calls we cannot in swift and decisive fashion. I will even go out on a limb and say that this trait is something instinctively built within some people but not all. It can't be taught and can't be practiced. While our everyday lives don't require us to save nose-diving passenger jets, we are comforted and rescued in many little moments by those who have this character trait. They are invaluable people to have around.
LESSON #2: THE EDGE NEEDED TO DO WHATEVER IT IS YOU DO-- While none of us are going to start condoning that all of our airline pilots chug screwdrivers and snort lines of cocaine before taking the controls on an airliner at 35,000 feet, every profession in this world has a certain degree of a mindset or an edge that it takes to perform that job at a high level. Think of that school teacher or mother that has to have her morning coffee to function before dealing with small children. Think of that athlete that has to psych himself up before a game with loud music in his headphones. Think of every person that has to talk into a mirror before they do whatever profession they do. That mindset or edge is each person's comfort zone and operational capacity. Sometimes, it takes certain triggers and vices to get there. For Whip, you could argue that he was better on drugs and alcohol than not. For more, see Lesson #3.
LESSON #3: THE TRAPPINGS OF ADDICTION-- Continuing in the path set from Lesson #2, if it constantly takes a certain vice, stimulus, or a trigger to even be comfortable or operational every day, then you may indeed have a addiction problem. Not all addictions are drugs and alcohol or life-threatening. Not all can be helped with therapy and support groups. Pride and lying are addictions, and, on the other side of the coin, so are success and (according to Robert Palmer) love. Might as well face it. Our man Whip Whitaker has each of these addictions. The drug and alcohol addictions are obvious, but the addictions of pride, lying, success, and love surface more and more as Flight travels on.