Friday, November 2, 2012
"Flight" is well-acted, has interesting ideas, but ultimately misses the mark
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a commercial pilot who's about to embark on the last flight of his life. Remarkably, he manages to save 96 of 102 passengers on this ill-fated flight but the discovery that there may have been alcohol in his system, something that we are all well aware of from the beginning of the film, casts a shadow of doubt over the idea that Whip's actions was the act of heroism.
Rounding out the cast includes names such as Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, and Brian Geraghty who all put forth solid roles. Don Cheadle plays Hugh Lang, Whip's criminal defense attorney and is a part of the support system that Whip unfortunately chooses to neglect and deceive throughout most of the movie. The movie initially revolves around the plane crash, but then becomes exclusively about Whip's alcoholism. Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins are quite relentless in their depiction of a man with this sad, never-ending vice.
But caught along the way, in this film, is a subplot that starts out promising enough but over the course of time, winds up getting in the way of the overall story instead of adding any layers to it. I'm talking about the relationship between Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and Whip. When the movie starts out, while we watch Whip go from his hotel bedroom to the cockpit, we are introduced to Nicole. She's a drug addict, struggling to pay rent and ultimately winds up in the same hospital as Whip after an overdose. These early scenes never really feel all too necessary as when Nicole and Whip finally meet, they proceed to have what feels like a ten-minute long conversation with a cancer patient as the three of them all smoke in the stairwell of the hospital. Anything we needed to know about Nicole, we find out anyway here, so what's the use of showing her story in the beginning when it breaks up the momentum of what winds up being a breathtakingly intense plane crash sequence?
Despite that though, it is interesting to see their story play out together as Whip catches up with her after his release from the hospital and winds up taking her in. But Whip never gets off the wagon, despite feeble attempts to do so, and it doesn't take long for Nicole to realize that staying with Whip isn't such a good idea after all, especially if she wants to stay sober.
The filmmakers had the right idea of not compromising while portraying Whip's battle with alcoholism, but Zemeckis frames and films the scenes in a way that makes it a tad melodramatic. Whip just can't stop drinking, no matter how hard he tries, but we don't really get to know Whip aside from the fact that he's a skilled pilot and alcoholic. We know he was married and has a 15 year old son, but we don't get that much back story. We don't know how or why he became an alcoholic, whether he got that from his father or anything like that. It's not as if a little more backstory would make Whip more sympathetic, but it would be nice to simply get more of a perspective on his addiction to make it feel more real and palatable.
As it is, the film ultimately feels like a two and a half hour PSA against alcoholism and it often handles the drama in a very uneven way, especially when John Goodman shows up in what's supposed to be the film's lighter moments. His first appearance in the film makes sense, his second appearance... and that whole sequence... while funny... just feels completely out of place tonally with the rest of the film. I won't give anything away, but it just doesn't blend well with the drama that occurs before and after.
Another point of contention for me is the use of music in the film. Gimme Shelter, Sympathy for the Devil, Feelin' Alright... songs that have been so played out in other films over the last thirty years that it adds nothing to the scenes they're in. At this point, they feel like stock soundtrack songs that filmmakers now use to portray cliches.
They had the right idea with this film though. They had it all laid right out there: the alcoholic pilot, his miraculous ability to land the flight, and his struggle between the possibility of going to jail for his erratic behavior outside the cockpit. All fodder for some great dramatic material, but I feel like Robert Zemeckis just went back into his old bag of dramatic tricks throughout the 140-minute running time instead of trying anything new.
As for Denzel Washington, his performance is rock solid throughout, no complaints here. But Denzel is always going to be Denzel, he wasn't exactly breaking any new ground here. His performance will confirm to you what you already know about him which is that he's a great, charismatic performer whose able to make you feel sympathy for him even when he plays unsympathetic characters. However, he doesn't do anything that makes you see him in a new light. Does he have to? No. He can be Denzel all he wants, just like Jack Nicholson will be Jack, Clooney will be Clooney.
Ultimately, an actor can only be as good as the material allows of him, and the drama in Flight is unfortunately very run-of-the-mill and it doesn't measure up to the thrilling, fantastic flight sequence that takes place in the beginning. By the time we reach the totally expected and unsurprising "court room" sequence at the end, the film pretty much writes itself.
Tightening the film in the second half and adding more depth to Whip's character would've really improved the dramatic aspects of the film. As it stands, again, despite a fantastic first half-hour, "Flight" just doesn't add up to a satisfying whole.