Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 138 minutes
Robert Zemeckis' Flight, the director's return to live-action filmmaking after three divisive motion-capture efforts, is certainly a polished, well-made film. After his trio of soulless animated features, the director proves that he's still game as ever when it comes to working with real people, sets, and locations. Yet Zemeckis' energetic direction isn't quite enough to prevent Flight from stumbling thanks to its script, even though he does keep the film from going into a complete nosedive.
Whip Williams (Denzel Washington), as is quickly established, is a womanizer, an alcoholic, and an avid cocaine user. He's also pilot. While it's not a good combination, there's no doubt as to Williams' skill in the cockpit. On a routine (and very short) flight, Whitaker's plane endures a series of malfunctions, eventually pitching into a straight dive. Almost miraculously, Whip successfully lands the plan after rolling it not once, but twice before setting down in a field behind a small church. Six people die in the course of the landing, but Williams is hailed as a hero, even as he flees the spotlight. Yet complications arrise when blood samples taken after the accident reveal levels of intoxication in Williams and another crew member.
From there, Flight glides ahead with energetic camera work and solid performances, even as the script constantly throws in some unwelcome turbulence. As capably as the cast performs (Washington is as engaging and watchable as ever), John Gatins' script is both too thin and too morally muddled. Whip's alcoholism is treated more as a plot device than a character trait. While the portrayal of alcoholism (and the self-deception involved) likely hits some truthful notes, we never have any grounding as to why Whip drinks the way he does. At best we know that his drinking was responsible for ending his marriage, but the conflict is too thinly detailed to hit home.
Credit should go to Washington, however, for taking a relatively one-dimensional character and making him compelling to follow, even if it's more due to the actor's inherent star magnetism. With a richer script and a deeper character to latch onto, Washington could have truly soared. Instead, he's left putting in a lot of emotional effort into a role that is written at a level far beneath him.
Other cast members aren't so lucky. Don Cheadle, as a lawyer tasked with sorting out Whip's side of the criminal investigation, has the script's least developed major character. Yes, his character's purpose is ultimately to support and challenge Whip, but the character appears to have been written on autopilot, used more as an expository tool of legal information. Kelly Reilly, as drug addict Whip meets in the hospital, gets a tad more to work with, but the role is as shallow as they come, as she's used more to bring up the painfully thin AA subplot in the film. Gatins gives her an interest in photography to lend her something outside of her drug troubles, but it's barely touched upon. Worst of all, the film wastes Melissa Leo as the head of the investigation into the crash landing. John Goodman also pops up in two irritating scenes, one of which is so bizarre and confused in its morality and tone that it beggars belief.
Surprisingly, it's some of the smallest parts that stand out in the film. Washington and Reilly's performances (mostly the former's) have received the most awards talk, but the stand out of the cast might actually be James Badge Dale. The actor only appears for one scene, yet his turn as a rambling cancer patient is nothing short of electrifying, and it's a shame that the actor wasn't used to better effect. Honorable mention should go to Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) as Whip's co-pilot during the crash landing, who brings an extra layer of intensity to one of the many one-note roles filling out the ensemble.
Unfortunately, as Flight progresses through its three main "chapters," it becomes weaker and weaker. The crash landing is a marvel of white-knuckle intensity, but once Whip wakes up in the hospital, the drop in dramatic power is tremendous. The middle section, which had the most room for character development, squanders it on scenes that merely coast by. Both Whip's relationship to Reilly's Nicole and the background details of the investigation are touched on so lightly that it's as if Gatins nearly forgot about them. There's a level of expert craftsmanship in Flight, even down to the seemingly "normal" but richly textured cinematography. Yet, unlike some examples in recent memory (Joe Wright's Hanna springs to mind), said craftsmanship isn't nearly enough to overcome the overarching weaknesses of the writing. The great irony, then, of Flight is that it only soars when its titular character is plunging straight down out of the sky.