Some people make getting back in the swing of things look all too easy. Take Robert Zemeckis, who makes his return to live-action movies with Flight. After more than 10 years of making computer-animated movies like The Polar Express, Zemeckis has high expectations to meet with his first non-CGI flick since 2000’s Cast Away. Luckily, he anchors his new movie with something that easily tops anything he’s made digitally: a stellar performance by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington.
From beginning to end, Washington is never less than enthralling as Whip Whitaker, a pilot whose plane falls into a nosedive a half-hour after takeoff. Only through a mix of skill, ingenuity, and a cool head is he able to make an emergency landing and keep from killing everyone on board. There’s just one problem: Whitaker’s a serious alcoholic and occasional drug user who snorts cocaine with a flight attendant the morning of and mixes vodka with orange juice a second before sitting in the pilot’s seat. It’s enough to make even Hunter S. Thompson say, “Jesus, man, slow down!”
Through subtle gestures, body language, and an understated delivery, Washington owns the movie, pulling off the rare feat of making a thoroughly damaged character engaging without diminishing his flaws or making him too sympathetic. His Whitaker is so cool that, even as his plane plunges towards certain doom in the film’s nerve-rattling opening, you believe things will turn out OK just from the way he keeps his voice level and his crew calm. And when he’s lying to some of his best friends’ faces about being sober, you believe he can get away with it. You may even hope he can. Even if you don’t like him, which I certainly didn’t at many points throughout, you’ll still want to see what Washington does with a man for whom a plane crash is the least of his problems.
He’s in good company, too. Zemeckis has again assembled a strong group of actors, from Kelly Reilly as a recovering addict with whom Whitaker begins a relationship, to John Goodman as his dealer friend, who strolls away with every scene he’s in. The movie is filled with moments loud, quiet, funny, and haunting between the cast and Washington as Whitaker continues his downward spiral.
If there’s one flaw, though, it’s that while the movie is engaging and simmering with emotion, it does feel slow and wandering at times. In a movie driven more by character than plot, that little bit can make things go from methodical to meandering. While Flight never becomes too melodramatic, corny, or Oscar bait-y, it does teeter on that edge a bit, and the religious symbolism is almost overdone.
Viewers expecting another cultural phenomenon from the director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away won’t find anything as epic here. Those wanting a strong, made-for-adults and created-for-the-big-screen movie from a very skilled director starring a very gifted actor should look no further.
Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, and Bruce Greenwood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by John Gatins. Rated R.