Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 138 minutes
In Robert Zemeckis’ first non-CG film since Cast Away, the much-adored Hollywood director tackles the serious issue of substance abuse with the dramatic backdrop of a plane crash in Flight. Anchored by a lead performance from Denzel Washington as pilot Whip Whitaker, a chain-smoking, cocaine-snorting alcoholic who, as fate would have it, is forced to execute an impossible emergency landing while under the influence of these personal crutches. This heroic moral conflict is the central focus as we traverse through both the aftermath and legal consequences of an averted tragedy. Despite its good intentions to raise compelling questions about addiction, the overall effect is sullied by a ham-fisted script from Real Steel scribe John Gatins, as well as lackluster direction from Zemeckis that, in short, makes the film feel obvious and bland.
The opening act centers on this miraculous spectacle that thrusts Captain Whitaker’s personal problems into the spotlight of public scrutiny. In the days and weeks after the crash, Whitaker’s problems with coping and confronting his addiction take center stage. Washington does his best to make moments of drunken angst believable, but the uneven tone prevents any genuine emotional turmoil. Despite his solid performance at the center, the Hollywood-processed nature of the drama makes for a futile attempt to achieve any real truths about his debilitating problems.
An ensemble cast of characters pop in and out of Whip’s life, offering quick vignettes that further flesh out his personality, but are devoid of any sincere substance. John Goodman appears in two scenes as a wacky drug dealer friend whose comedic relief undercuts Washington serious drama; Don Cheadle has an uninspired performance as Whitaker’s lawyer, hired by the airlines; and Melissa Leo has one dry scene during the climatic interrogation hearing. But the worst offender is Kelly Reilly, whose performance as a failed photographer-turned-heroin addict is not just paltry, but completely shatters any illusion that Flight is a serious drama.
The final act serves as an attempt to re-frame the entire conflict of Whip’s character into an examination of humility and a search for spirituality that comes off plainly manipulative. An overt thematic touch may be familiar territory for Zemeckis, but the effect here feels so banal — not unlike a rude flight attendant bumping into your shoulder with a food cart, compounding your frustration. As the talented Washington bounces from one shallow and insipid character to the next, this quickly becomes a flight that never takes off.
Flight premiered at NYFF and opens on November 2nd.
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