Flight – 2012
Director Robert Zmeckis
Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay John Gatnis
There is a pall hanging over every scene of Flight. Two stories are told. One is that of William “Whip” Whitaker, an Airline pilot who has copious amounts of booze, coke and sex (with one of the stewardesses). The other is a more humble Nicole, a photographer whose world fell apart when her mother died of cancer, and through an addiction to heroin ends up overdosed. As she is being carted out of her apartment by the medics, Captain Whitaker’s plane flies overhead. Only it’s upside down.
The plane crashes, but it’s due to Whip’s amazing presence of his impaired mind that allows almost all the passengers to survive. Whip ends up in the same hospital as Nicole. They meet in the stairwell while sneaking from their two rooms for a smoke. Their smoke leads to a relationship that is less fire than smoldering embers. It is fueled and hampered by their state.
She wants to get better, and can anonymously afford to do so. He is mired in the potential for litigation and jail time. He has several people on his side, wanting for him to evade responsibility. The Lawyer for the Airline Hugh Lang (Cheadle) comes forward with a toxicology report that shows the truth, and that is just the beginning. His friend and former copilot Charlie (Greenwood) provides another voice of support that is pretty much ignored by the still using Whip. Even Nicole tries to get him to commit to AA. He stubbornly refuses to change, even after it’s too late.
John Goodman plays Harling Mays, his dealer and seeming chemical magician. His works are a little hard to understand, but a welcome relief in a film so otherwise unrelentingly dreary.
Washington’s performance is somewhat of an enigma. We see him move from functional addict to completely miserable louse who is trying to gather his life together. He is a master of his craft at this point. When Gatnis’ script and Zmeckis’ direction applies pressure that would smother many other actors, he gives a solid performance that keeps the story interesting. It is doubtful that this movie could have done nearly as well without him.
Zmeckis has been down this way before, in terms of tone. After a career of light-hearted comedies, he scored big time with Forrest Gump and then all of a sudden turned heavy. Films like Contact, What Lies Beneath and especially Cast Away were all weighted down with heavy themes and oppression. After an experiment with creepy animation in Beowulf, The Holiday Express and A Christmas Carol, this is his return to live acting. Like the airplane, it lands, with most of the overwrought but competent story in tact. But oh, what a sequence that plane crash is. It just stays grounded after that.
Zmeckis and Washington wring several good performances, especially from Reilly, Cheadle and Tamara Tunie, who plays stewardess and crash survivor Margaret Thomason. The movie is good, but not great. It’s just what one would expect in Oscar season, but Washington is the only one who deserves the consideration.
(***1/2 out of *****)