“So, who are you?” and then the film is over. Self discovery and the human condition, despite who we are, are things I find Robert Zemekis loves to address in his movies. We see significant events unfold, and discover that we are not defined by one event but are the culmination of multiple events converging all at once. Things happen for a reason. Or do they? God ordained this or did He? You see that Robert Zemekis’ Flight approaches these questions, as he does in most of his films, with an open mind and heart.
Flight is not what you think it is or it’s not what I thought it was. It’s the study of a man, an alcoholic, who sees all his life’s decisions or his indecision as it were, come to a head. These events, an epic plane crash, lead to the complete and utter unraveling of a man who had built walls and fortresses around his conscience and heart with sex, drugs and smooth R&B.
So we begin with the introduction of Whip Whitaker, portrayed by the always magnetic Denzel Washington, beginning a day in the life of an ordinary pilot flying a gigantic plane full people. I don’t want to tell you much about what kind of person he is because that is some of the fun of Denzel’s character. You won’t be sure if you love him, hate him, feel sorry for him or maybe you identify with him on some level. Either way I feel this will be better experienced within the confines of the film. I will say Whip is drunk and enjoyed a nice line of coke before hitting the friendly skies, but seems awake, ready, and able to guide these people safely to their destination. What you will see within the next 30 minutes of the film may be one of the most well crafted flight sequences I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. The crash isn’t the star, it’s everything leading up to the crash including Denzel Washington and his always superb demeanor in situations such as these. He is the master when it comes to “the tight situation.” Also, I imagine Zemekis spent a lot of time finding out exactly how a crash like this would play out and how someone could get out of the issue if only by the skin of their teeth. The unfortunate thing about the crash is it is the high point of the movie and it never again reaches the peaks achieved within the first 30 minutes. While the crash may be the peak thematically, it is not the peak emotionally.
From the moment Whip wakes up from the crash he is on a collision course with the reality of what has happened. People have died, though it was only a few, its still in his mind digging away and fueling his addictive, self absorbed way. He knows he was drunk while flying the plane. He knows he will be investigated and this is where the real story for Flight begins. We learn in a short time that Whip is an alcoholic, he’s divorced, has little to no relationship with his son and enjoys the company of women. We only meet two of his female friends. The first of which we meet very early on, the beautiful Katerina Marquez played by the stunning Nadine Velazquez and then Nicole Maggen played by the less exotic but just as stunning Kelly Reilly. Katerina is Whip’s party gal and doesn’t get much screen time here but has an impact nonetheless and Nicole is an addict and the film’s emotional pulse for a time. Nicole plays an integral role here as she really is Whip’s foil, so to speak. She, being a fellow addict, knows an addict when she sees one and finds that Whip has some serious issues with “the drink.” Nicole isn’t some hard assed “I grew up on the streets and consume copious amounts of heroin, so take me seriously because I’m hard” kind of a character. She is very soft and gentle and beautiful and you almost can’t understand how someone so gentle ended up the way she has.
Relationships really inform you about who Whip is at the beginning of the movie. Mostly in the form of Harling “I’m on the list” Mays played by the always brilliant John Goodman. These shining characters always make their way into a Zemekis film. That’s the one thing I may have missed the most about his absence from live action cinema were the incredible characters he brings to the screen and John Goodman helps bring one of those to life. Harling is Whip’s drug dealer and friend, from the looks of it. They are obviously close but it seems like they have gotten that way for the wrong reason. Either way, they definitely care for one another and share some hilarious scenes together the few times Harling is in the movie. In contrast to the funny light hearted relationship Whip has with Harling, he shares a more serious straight relationship with his longtime friend/acquaintance Charlie Anderson (played by Bruce Greenwood), and Whip’s uber serious lawyer Hugh Lang (played by the always solid Don Cheadle.) Both characters are trying to keep Whip safe from the law and himself all throughout the film. They ultimately fail? Maybe, maybe not. In my opinion and probably most, they do in fact succeed just not in the way they might have hoped. I find this ambiguity to be very rewarding in films and I cite Gone Baby Gone as a perfect example of which is right and which is more right. Although Flight is far more cut and dry when it comes to right and wrong it definitely has touches where this delightful moral ambiguity creeps up.
I find the film is tightly paced and succeeds at all it aspires to, mostly. There is a bit of faulter near the end of the second act that nearly took me out of the movie. I felt almost pulled out of the film entirely. Mostly due to my complete annoyance with the main character and his “struggle” with alcoholism. I felt like the director was beating me to death with the “this guy is an alcoholic and he really struggles with it” point. I get it, lets move on with the story. Luckily, when the third act kicks off everything comes back together and you’re in for a superb emotional ending. Something you have really come to expect from Robert Zemekis and his movies.
Flight establishes itself as a great return to live action filmmaking for Robert Zemekis though it has a few flaws here and there. While this isn’t his best film, by any stretch of the imagination, it is his riskiest and toughest film to date. I loved the film for what it was, an impressive character study and a fairly deep look into the trials of alcoholism. Flight, gives us a front row seat to the destructive nature of man and what addiction can do to augment and destroy who we are at our core. “So, who are you?” That’s a great question.
I give Flight a 4 out of 5
By Brandon Bray