by Craig Thomas
In Flight, Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with an alcohol addiction. At the start of the film we see him drink alcohol, take drugs and crash a plane into the ground. The rest of the film then follows Whip as he struggles to deal with his alcohol problem as well as the media and investigative frenzy surrounding the crash. During this time he befriends Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict, struggling to stay clean.
Calling the film Flight is somewhat misleading. After the impressive opening scenes to set the stage, there isn’t any actual flying. Instead, there is a character study of two people with substance abuse problems at different stages of using. But let’s start with the actual flight.
This is a very impressive scene and even though you can guess what is going to happen, the tension holds brilliantly. Each pull of the lever, each flip of numerous switches feel vital and precise. Whereas other plane crash movies might have the pilot flipping banks of switches, here each flip is specifically called for and built up to. Every time there is a sense of relief quickly followed by building tension once again.
For a big action sequence, it is very minimalistic. There are no drinks trolleys flying down the aisles, nor does every piece of luggage feel compelled to bound from its overhead compartment. There aren’t any shots of passengers wailing, or praying or any of that sort of thing. In fact, we don’t really get to see the passengers faces at all, with most scenes shot from the back of the plane. It wants you to be under no illusion, this is not a disaster movie.
Then the planes crashes.
This is when the movie really begins. We see Whip struggle with the situation he now finds himself in and the potential consequences of his lifestyle. We also see Nicole as she battles her own demons and tries to support Whip as he falls apart.
Things slow down here and though the script is solid, it is somewhat surprising to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Aside from a few lines which sound like classic Washington, there isn’t really much to get excited about. There is an interesting speech in a stairwell, but apart from that there isn’t much. At times it feels overwrought and heavy-handed, whilst some of the big scenes don’t manage to hit the right spot.
Yet the cast do their best with what they’ve got. Denzel puts in a very good performance as always, but the material isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, so there is only so much that can be done. One only wonders what this film would have been like were the lead role given to a lesser actor. Still, a Best Actor nomination seems overly generous if only due to the limitations of the script.
Kelly Reilly also gives a solid performance, but neither character feels particularly fleshed out, even though we know a lot about their (unfortunately predictable) backgrounds. Don Cheadle does well as the amoral lawyer (is there another kind?), Hugh Lang. There is also an enjoyable cameo from John Goodman playing Whip’s Rolling Stones soundtracked drug dealer.
Helmed by Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forest Gump, Cast Away) the film is very well put together. At times, his use of the camera really focuses on what is important, giving an insular feeling which reflects the character’s isolation. The only time he really slips up is during an inappropriate moment at a hospital where we are invited to laugh at some (again, two dimensional) people for their religious beliefs. It tries to lighten the mood, but ends up looking like something from an out-and-out comedy and doesn’t sit well with the frankly serious nature of the scene. It would be like placing a fart gag at the emotional climax of Schindler’s List.
This is a mediocre film pulled up by its bootstraps by some great performances and some inspired directing. It shouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is, but then that is true of a lot of Denzel Washington movies. The main problem is that it isn’t particularly deep which is usually death for a character study such as this. Still, everything just about comes together and there is enough good will in the first hour or so (which is regularly topped up) to carry you through to the end.