Does Flight secure yet another Oscar nod for Denzel Washington, or is this flight stuck on the tarmac?
Among the best actors of our time, Denzel Washington's resume is unmatched: from Glory and Philadelphia, to Crimson Tide and (one of this year's best) Safe House, Washington's ability to engross us with his roles sometimes outdoes the film itself (think Man on Fire). His recent choices have taken on morally ambivalent anti-heroic characters, doomed to difficulty, failure, and ultimately redemption. And although Flight suits his Modus operandi, resulting in yet another intense white-knuckled affair, it's the script's inconsistencies that eventually bring this plane down.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot for the fictitious South Jet Airlines, whose sorted lifestyle choices find him in the first scene passed out in an Orlando hotel room with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velasquez, My Name is Earl). Never a man to dismiss a drink or the offer of sex, Whitaker is a disaster waiting to happen; his morning regiment consists of a snort of cocaine and later a bottle of orange juice filled with several hotel bottles of vodka. It's amazing he can get out of bed, let alone pilot a plane, but duty calls as his next flight is soon to depart. When things turn ugly during a raging thunderstorm in which Whitaker's plane loses both engines and heads into an uncontrolled descent, he somehow crash-lands in an empty field, saving many lives and making him a hero to the survivors, including his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty, Hurt Locker) and lead stewardess Margaret (Tamara Tunie, Wall Street). As Whitaker's toxicology report comes back positive, he enlists the aid of pilot's union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek 2009) and lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, Ocean's Eleven). Things seem to be going well, until Whitaker descends once again into several drunken binges aided in part by his supplier (John Goodman, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who will later come to his aid in one of the movie's funniest and best scenes. But the NTSB isn't laughing, as charges of criminal negligence and possible jail time threaten to undo him. While recovering, Whip meets the drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reily, Sherlock Holmes), who narrowly survived a harrowing drug overdose. As one attempts rehab, the other refuses treatment, culminating in a bender the night before his trial. As the circle begins to tighten, Whitaker must decide whether to clean up and admit his addiction, or sweep it under the rug so he can fly again.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump) returns to live-action after a 12-year absence, and it's like he never left. He's at his best during the frantic crash sequence, mixing panicked dialogue, realistic special effects, and Washington's cool-under-pressure bravado into a cacophony of searing engines, screaming passengers, and thunderous pulse-pounding rattles as Whitaker somehow lands the plane with minimal loss of life. But the film is never so good after the crash, vacillating between religious undertones of intervention and full-blown endorsements of Alcoholics Anonymous. And while I enjoyed the eye candy of an extended nude scene featuring Velasquez, it's a bit gratuitous and superfluous. Washington's troupe of veterans work well together, with Goodman churning out yet another enjoyable supporting roles, and both Greenwood and Cheadle working off each other in every scene they're in. Riley's a fair player for Washington, but she's clearly underutilized here, relegated to a minor character in photos by film's end. Writer John Gatins (Real Steel) initially absorbs the audience into Whitaker's world of sex, drugs, and booze with an effective Act 1 & 2; unfortunately, things go astray in Act 3, removing some of the impact and intensity by forcing us to live Whitaker's entire story instead of choosing a well-placed and ultimately more effective landing spot (no pun). There's clearly several points where the story felt extended, possibly due to poor feedback from test audiences. Imagine if Gatins had ended things near the end of Whitaker's trial as opposed to its ultimate redemption angle? Such an ending would have left a lot on the table by giving audiences a chance to make their own ending. In the end, we're treated to a discussion on AA, with Whitaker extolling the virtues of a clean life, and a limp ending involving his son interviewing the now-sober father. Sigh...
Unquestionably a good (not great) film, Flight should nab both Washington and Zemeckis Oscar nods, but its long and unnecessary 138-minute runtime might keep this creative team from joining each other on stage come February 24th. Flight is a solid, engrossing film, certainly a top 15, but Washington's done better this year. Hopefully, moviegoers will also check out his performance in Safe House to see a better and more connected story that deserves a nod for its efforts. In the meantime, enjoy Flight - it's rated R for explicit nudity, language, and drug use.
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