The Good: Acting, Dramatic tension, Interesting characters, Good conflict, Decent plot
The Bad: Cliches (romantic subplot), Moments of belaboring its own point.
The Basics: Flight lives up to the hype of a typical Denzel Washington drama film, this time focusing on an alcohol and drug-addicted pilot whose life it changed when he crashes a plane.
As Oscar Pandering Season reaches its zenith this year, the selections are getting a bit obvious. While I loved Argo, a political story that allowed Ben Affleck to make a directoral and acting grab for the big trophies was more obvious than audacious in many ways. In a similar way, Flight is working very hard to fill a niche in Oscar Pandering Season that has been successful in the past, most notably with Million Dollar Baby (reviewed here!). Like Million Dollar Baby, Flight starts as one type of film and then turns into another type of film altogether as it progresses. Actually, Flight is not that abrupt, as the key elements are juggled throughout. There are, however, stretches of the film where it seems uncertain if it wants to be a gripping character study about an addict or a crime drama.
Regardless, director Robert Zemeckis is making Oscarbait with Flight and it seems like it hits all the key elements needed to get the nominations it seeks for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Denzel Washington). And while I enjoyed it and can think of at least four other films vying for the same nominations that Flight is better than, as the film wound down, I found myself thinking about how the movie lacked a spark of greatness. With the movies I hope might win the big Oscars, I always find myself wanting to watch them more than once (even Crash, reviewed here!). With Flight, I had the feeling when it was over that made me shrug and say “Once was enough.”
Whip Whitaker is a boozer, a coke addict, and a guy who hooks up with whatever woman is most convenient, dependent upon his location. Whitaker is also a pilot and during a flight complicated by weather and turbulence, he makes a daring series of maneuvers and adjustments to save the bulk of the passengers. While the more than ninety survivors of the flight are glad to be alive, the families of the dead quickly look to assign blame. In the hospital in Georgia, Whitaker is visited by elements from both sides; the Union (represented by his friend Charlie) and investigators from the National Traffic Safety Board.
As the investigation proceeds and Whitaker’s defense attorney works to suppress the toxicology evidence that would spell the end of Whitaker’s career, he meets Nicole. Nicole is an addict who is working on getting clean and against their better judgments – especially considering Whitaker is still being visited by his dealer, Harling – they begin to bond. With Whitaker fighting his own inner demons, he and Hugh fight to keep his life as a pilot from falling apart as the investigators dig deeper.
Flight manages to be entertaining in telling the viewer what they have already seen. The crash – which I would have argued should have been kept out of the trailers for maximum impact in the film itself – is experienced and seen by the viewers, yet the forensic detailing of it afterward is presented in a way that manages to be entertaining. In fact, the scenes that could have been dry exposition work hard on the screen to reinforce that the event viewers witnessed was miraculous in many ways. Part of the power of the middle and latter sections of the film come from the technical descriptions and the understanding that the results were atypical. No matter what one’s personal feelings are on addictions, it is virtually impossible to watch the breakdown of the chain of events and not be impressed that Whip Whitaker’s actions manages to save almost everyone aboard the plane.
The fundamental question Flight has to wrestle with, then, is whether or not Whitaker’s actions leading up to flying high (no way around that phrase in this review!) in advance of the initial conditions attributed to the crash contributed to the crash. In other words, would the plane still have encountered the same circumstances from which Whitaker was forced to rescue the plane were it not for him being drunk and on coke at the time? Fortunately, the film belabors the events as they happened and exactly what it means on a personal and professional level. Professionally, it is hard to deny the fact that Whitaker is an ace pilot, reinforced by the simulations that other pilots faced with the same conditions crashed during.
But the personal implications of Flight make for more compelling questions. If Whitaker is such an amazing pilot, does it actually matter that he was drunk at the time of the accident? If Whitaker’s piloting was an element in a divine scheme that cost six people their lives, what does it mean for him to get sober (or not) in its aftermath? Flight satisfactorily presents a sense of that conflict and turmoil.
At the same time, Flight muddies its essential conflict with the superfluous romantic relationship between Whitaker and Nicole in a particularly trite plotline that anyone familiar with treatment knows is against every major therapy style. Whip Whitaker is a pretty classic anti-hero, while Nicole grounds Flight with a greater sense of realism. She is an addict, constantly struggling, outside the limelight and truly with only herself to bear the strain. The sudden celebrity and notoriety Whitaker achieves allows him the chance to avoid some of his own emotional consequences, but makes for a sufficiently complicated character study.
Denzel Washington is obvious, but impressive, as Whip Whitaker. Plausible as a pilot and an addict, Washington brings the character to life, making him seem like much more than just a character type. Washington is balanced well by Don Cheadle (Hugh) and Bruce Greenwood (Charlie) who all have the same level of gravitas in their roles, making the “universe” of Flight seem completely plausible. John Goodman is fun as Harling Mays, but like Kelly Reilly’s Nicole, he seems out of place in Flight.
Even so, Flight manages to live up to the hype surrounding it as an engaging, (mostly) character-driven drama that succeeds in being a contender for this year’s Oscar race.
For other works with Denzel Washington, please check out my reviews of:
The Book Of Eil
The Taking Of Pelham 3 2 1
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.