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Crash and burn

Denzel Washington flies high in Flight, but film fails to soar

Flight movie
You could cut the tension with a knife in this scene from Flight. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Flight movie
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Director Robert Zemeckis has been adrift for quite some time. Since the one-two punch of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away in 2000, he’s gone down the rabbit hole of motion capture animation, delivering three films — The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol — that have gradually gotten better in terms of photorealism but all of which have each failed narratively.

Now he’s back with Flight, a film that — coincidentally or not — centers around the fallout of a horrific plane crash, much like Cast Away, his most recent successful film. But instead of dealing with a man who has to survive alone on a tropical island, Flight is about a man, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who's fighting his own personal demons.

 It’s one of the bleakest film displays of alcoholism in quite some time, but it also represents a frustrating lack of narrative progression.

You see, he’s an alcoholic. And the big question the film raises is whether or not he’s a hero after successfully crash landing a plane that experienced equipment failure.

However, it’s a question that has no good answer, at least as laid out by Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel). After the excitement and terror of the plane crash that opens the film, Flight is pretty much a continuous cycle of Whip going into the darkest depths of his disease and then trying to escape its clutches to please those who are trying to help him. It’s one of the bleakest film displays of alcoholism in quite some time, but it also represents a frustrating lack of narrative progression.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other entertaining aspects to the film. Bruce Greenwood, who plays the head of Whip’s pilot’s union, and Don Cheadle, the lawyer hired to protect Whip from criminal negligence, are the surrogates for the audience, and their reactions to Whip’s antics echo the audience’s reactions.

John Goodman plays Whip’s friend Harling, who is of questionable character and hygiene. His appearances are a whirlwind of humorous action and dialogue.

 Washington’s character shows that he is capable of giving a strong performance even while starring in a comparatively weak movie.

But there are an equal number of questionable side plots. Kelly Reilly, a British actress best known for her roles in the two recent Sherlock Holmes films, plays a junkie trying to get clean whom Whip befriends while in the hospital. To say their relationship goes nowhere would be generous, and the prominence it is given throughout is baffling.

The same could be said of Whip’s family. So little time is spent detailing his supposedly strained relationships with his father, wife and son that it almost would have been better to leave them out altogether.

Despite its faults, what Flight does have going for it is Denzel Washington as its protagonist. There are few current actors who can so convincingly play someone you want to love and hate at the same time. Although Whip won’t go down as one of Washington’s most memorable characters, it does show that he is capable of giving a strong performance even while starring in a comparatively weak movie.

Zemeckis, as he always does, shines when delivering a CGI-heavy action sequence. Unfortunately, the spectacular plane crash is the high point of Flight, followed by two hours of wishy-washiness.

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