By Ed Symkus
Unless you have a fear of flying that’s so intense, you stay away from films in which planes filled with screaming passengers come hurtling down into fields or mountains, you’ve probably seen an airplane crash movie or two. If they’re well made – think Cast Away, Alive, United 93, even the comedy Airplane! – they probably make you think twice about boarding that next jet airliner, and they’ll certainly never be a part of your in-flight entertainment.
Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, will absolutely give you the high-flying willies, but will also keep you totally engrossed in what turns into a terrific character study of a man who is spinning out of control due to all kinds of personal demons, but who believes that he can just carry on as if he’s leading a life of normalcy.
Wouldn’t you know it, he’s a pilot! Played by Denzel Washington who, in recent years has delivered good but not great performances (his last really strong one was American Gangster in 2007), the character of veteran captain Whip Whitaker is introduced, right at the film’s start, as someone with a whole lot of warts.
He groggily awakens from what must have been a wild night with a beautiful young woman, he reaches over to finish his hours-old beer, lights up a cigarette, snorts a couple of lines of coke, then reports to work, having gotten himself together. No, wait, just before takeoff, he grabs one more pick-me-up: a couple of deep hits from his oxygen mask.
Not the kind of guy you want in charge at 35,000 feet. Especially not when he’s up against some “severe turbulence.” Definitely not when his plane loses vertical control.
The plane crash sequence, which only takes up about eight minutes of screen time, but feels like a never-ending nightmare, is terrifying. No similar situation has ever been portrayed with this intensity in any movie before it.
Yet it’s not till the plane is down, with most of its passengers and crew alive, that the story really begins.
But first a story about Robert Zemeckis, who made the Back to the Future series, Forrest Gump, and the previously mentioned Cast Away. That film, his most recent live-action one, kicked off with a horrific plane crash. He then made three motion capture films in a row, and returned to live action with Flight and its groundbreaking crash.
I recently hosted a Q&A session with him and asked him what that was all about. He admitted that his producing partners tried to talk him out of doing another plane crash film, but he ignored them, citing that the script was too good not to do.
He’s right. Sure, the visual effects and raging turmoil are amazing, but when the film settles down to a study of Whip and his demons and the people trying to help him and the forces working against him (legal ones and emotional ones), you’re likely to forget about the action that came before, and become completely absorbed in the drama of it all.
Washington plays the part in a range that goes from cocky to carefree to troubled to shattered to sloppy drunk, and not necessarily in that order. A close look at his face throughout his various ordeals reveals only that there’s a hell of a lot going on inside. But the miracle of his acting prowess is that he’s not going to let on what it is.
Washington’s got some great company surrounding him: his caring but wary pal Charlie (Bruce Greenwood); a lawyer (Don Cheadle) who insists he’ll get him off scot free when talk turns from mechanical failure to possible negligence; Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a traumatized, heroin-addled hooker who comes into his life; and Harling (John Goodman), in an over-the-top, yet tightly controlled comic performance as a “drug doctor” who lives his life to a Rolling Stones soundtrack.
Yet even with all of that talent, the screen is stolen away by James Badge Dale as an unnamed cancer patient in a brief hospital stairwell sequence with Washington and Reilly. Dale has been around in small parts for a decade (and played Chase on season 3 of 24). Look for more of him in the future.
The film is about addiction as much as it’s about redemption. When it’s over, you’ll realize that you had no idea where it was heading, and there’ll be plenty to discuss about the possible meanings of its messages.