Washington, we have a problem
The opening thirty minutes of Flight features some of the most intense moments of cinema you’ll witness this year. Presented within a rarely seen perspective from inside the cockpit, a large proportion of the heart-pounding action unfolds in real time as the pilot, Whip, and his crew attempt to regain control of the plummeting aircraft. The result is a thoroughly engaging and terrifyingly real cinema experience that leaves previous film’s efforts to depict this traumatic experience trembling in its wake. This is edge-of-your-seat action filmmaking at its finest.
As the film emerges from the wreckage it transforms into a character study of a plane crash survivor, but unfortunately this new narrative never matches the intensity of the earlier sequence. Though the contexts are very different there is a similarity between Flight and Zemeckis’ earlier hit Castaway with the way in which the director approaches his central character. Much like Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland, Whip is an isolated figure dealing with the troubling issues that arise after surviving such an ordeal. But unlike Castaway, this plane crash served as the catalyst for a saddening journey as Whip’s life spirals out of control and the distraught pilot is left to tackle his guilt, alcoholism and deep rooted personal issues alone.
Denzel Washington provides what is arguably his career-best performance and perfectly exemplifies the antihero within his role as the flawed protagonist. Portraying an alcoholic is a role that is very easy to overact, but Washington is among the best. With remarkable talent he handles the discrete emotions and intricacies superbly and in doing so provides a performance that is, like the opening sequence, exceptionally authentic.
Several sub-narratives arise in the second half of the film as Whip comes to terms with life after the crash. The public and media have heralded him a hero having saved many lives, but he is haunted by an increasingly severe criminal investigation into his wellbeing on the day of the flight. Additionally a dysfunctional relationship develops between Whip and a recovering heroin addict Nicole. Zemeckis keeps these narratives restrained, opting instead to use them to supplement his central character and admittedly it works. The problem is that after such a high-octant start, the slow-burning aftermath will leave audiences unfulfilled.
With little direct focus on each of the sub-narratives Zemeckis doesn’t make room for his talented support cast to thrive. Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly and John Goodman are each impressive within their roles, but with unexplored characters and limited screen time they unfortunately fade from memory.
Flight is epitomized by its lifeless conclusion; a pseudo-dramatic, overly sentimental ending and a crippling departure from the brilliance audiences were treated to at the start. Zemeckis hasn’t made a decent film in thirteen years, but fortunately for him a sublimely constructed opening thirty minutes and an immaculate central performance keep this disappointment off the ground.