I’ve always been a little, well, suspicious of Robert Zemeckis. As a protégé of Spielberg he began his career by pounding out blockbuster favourites such as the beloved Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back To The Future franchise before transmogrifying into a ‘worthy’ Hollywood director with the likes of Contact, Castaway and the Hitchcockian What Lies Beneath, his personal style a blend of visual effect envelope pushing and rather staid, conventional and mainstream storytelling that always seemed a little too focus tested and blandly identikit for my tastes. To be fair he is an exemplar of introducing SFX as a narrative tool designed to tell and drive the story rather than an excuse to bewilder and dazzle an audience with redundant pyrotechnics, his most famous hit was of course the odious Oscars laden Forrest Gump with its horrendous political subtext, that you should remain dumb and acquiesce to authority at all costs, and if you affiliate with any radicals who question the state they will quite literally rape you and give you AID’s – how’s that for a widely beloved award-winning family film? In Gump I detected a quiet sliver of moral hectoring which seems to be powered by an undeniable religious idolatry, I have no idea of Zemeckis real-world personal beliefs but there is an underlying strand of devotional dedication that is quietly programmed into his movies, as cold and unearthly as the motion capture uncanny valley which his career morphed into over the past decade from The Polar Express to Beowulf. Fans of his work welcomed the news that he was returning to live action filmmaking with the dramatically sober Flight, releasing Denzel Washington from the paralysing grip of those comic book Tony Scott movies, giving the star his first opportunity to play to his charismatic strengths since American Gangster back in 2007.
Opening the morning after the night before, and Captain ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Denzel Washington) groggily awakes in a identikit hotel room, a naked stewardess at his side and a money demanding ex-wife on the phone. A functioning alcoholic with a twin problem with Bolivian flake to straighten out his hangovers, Whitaker takes a revitalising rail and hurtles to the airport where he is the lead pilot on a domestic short-haul punt between Orlando and Atlanta. After a rocky ascent caused by excessive turbulence Whitaker handles the shuddering conditions with the skill of a veteran pilot, secretly knocking back some vodka laced OJ to get his system pumping for the routine day ahead. What follows is hardly routine however as the plane is suddenly plunged into a terminal tailspin following the damage wrought by the earlier weather, and Whitaker irresponsibility executes a suicidal inversion manoeuvre in order to halt the catastrophic loss of altitude, and hopefully even out the descent for a potential gliding landing to give all 102 souls abroad the doomed aircraft at least a fighting chance of survival. After losing consciousness upon impact Whitaker awakes in a hospital bed and is miraculously untouched bar a few cuts and bruises, briefed by his colleague and Union Rep (Bruce Greenwood) whom advises him that six people were killed in the exercise but he is widely regarded as a hero, after adapting to the circumstances with a test of skill that none of his peers could replicate in a simulation booth. After hooking up with the heroin addicted Nicole (Kelly Reily) whom he befriends in hospital the film charts Whitaker’s real descent to the nadir of his life, hailed as an enigmatic hero and hunted by the press his drinking and abusive behaviour intensifies, with a secret toxicology test potentially landing him in prison for multiple cases of manslaughter should the airline or their supply chain seek to pin the blame on him for their manufacturing and maintenance failures.
Denzel Washington effortlessly cruises to another Academy Award nomination in Flight, it’s a shame that the film surrounding his convincing and occasionally compelling performance doesn’t equal his commanding screen presence. As rumoured the build up and execution of the dramatic defining crash is as terrifying as you’d expect, anyone with an aversion to being trapped in a metal sphere at 20,000 feet at the whims of turbulence and a pilots skill should seriously think twice about catching this movie, Zemeckis is a pilot himself with 1,600 hours on the clock, so this section and its immediate aftermath has a grim authenticity that the remainder of the film struggles to match. In its initial phases the film launches all sorts of potentially fascinating ideas and themes, the notion of fate and survival, queries on divine speculation and the dimensions of human agency in a mortal realm, and the rather thorny issue of whether Whitaker would have had the insight and/or skill to execute such an audacious lifesaving manoeuvre if he hadn’t been addled by the confidence enhancing properties of narcotics and booze. Alas all these compelling questions are swiftly brushed aside in favour of a less nuanced emphasis on Whitaker’s personal salvation, with a rather sly undercurrent of some divine intervention being responsible for his miraculous survival and insight, with a laughable prayer scene which one assumes was conducted on set with earnest seriousness, yet provoked gales of laughter from the audience I saw the film with. The films single asset is Washington who holds the voyage together, he really does emit a celluloid charisma which blots out many of the films narrative malfunctions, and the film remains watchable for his performance alone – one specific scene where he persuades a colleague to assist in the cover-up of his foibles is brilliantly arrayed.
For the first two acts this is an engaging and empathetic study in substance abuse refracted through that cosy Hollywood prism – I seriously doubt that a smackhead who had OD’d 24 hours previously would look quite as radiant as Reily does with her light dusting of make-up and nicely coiffured hairstyle – before plunging into a destructive tailspin in its last twenty or so minutes with developments that had me shaking my head in mock disbelief. Quite how anyone in this production thought it would be appropriate to disintegrate the solemn and serious tone of the previous two hours by suddenly devaluing the life destroying realities of substance abuse to a humorous sidebar for the films investigative plot strand is utterly beyond me, it’s a shocking lapse in judgement thus if the film picks up a best screenwriting gong at the end of the month there truly is no god. John Goodman cameos as one of Whitaker’s avuncular drug pushing, enabling friends and his inclusion introduces some reliving humour amongst the trajectory of the dour character study, his involvement is presumably part of his professional penitence as a man who recently and understandably bristly confessed his continuing struggle with alcoholism, one hopes he never sees the film as his misjudged final appearance might just send him fleeing back to the bottle. The whole relationship plot machinations with Nicole putters to a standstill and on reflection seems to be a totally unnecessary line of narrative inquiry, and in its final descent there is a rush to a predictable conclusion which the film long ejected from its emotional baggage hold. Connoisseurs of plane crash movies and die-hard Denzel fans aside when considering it’s terminal velocity this is one Flight you’ll probably want to miss;