By the ghost of Ernest Hemingway: Is anything more consistently compelling than the narrative of a brilliant, talented soul undone by uncontrollable addiction? Flight is an old spin on an old tale, focusing on a hero without a heroic bone in his body and a liver that hates him. Director Robert Zemeckis and writer John Gatins may go to the proverbial cliché well over and over again, but so long as there’s fresh water there, who can blame them?
And speaking of drinking… Denzel Washington does his roguishly disheveled best as Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot whose “in-flight beverages” are fully loaded with Stoli. When his plane malfunctions during a routine flight, Whip somehow manages to land the dang thing by briefly flying upside-down, a fictional embellishment that was verified as scientifically possible by The Flat Earth Society.
When he comes to, he finds out his stewardess girlfriend (Nadine Velazquez) is dead, his old military friend, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), is his concerned “pilots’ union” representative and his new lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), is fairly concerned Whip will be spending the rest of his life in prison for manslaughter. Why? Well, even though he saved almost all of the lives on board, he did so while, to use a legal term, “Lindsey Lohan Wasted.”
Flight is by-the-books narrative storytelling that is disproportionately effective because the people working by-the-books are Washington and Zemeckis. What’s most surprising is that, in a year when Jacki Weaver can get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for merely being present while Silver Linings Playbook was filmed, Kelly Reilly hasn’t even been spoken about for her role as Nicole, a heroin addict trying to be a good girl. With an authentic and quaint southern drawl, despite being born in Surrey England, Reilly sizzles. And since Washington is at the age where he is content to act down or up to the level of whoever is in the room with him, the scenes with him and Reilly are surprisingly magnetic.
That said, when he’s alone and wallowing, Washington does his standard charismatic stammering schtick, which isn’t to say it’s not somehow still effective. Greenwood technically does a better job as a straight-laced union spokesman, but Washington brought his swag, so no one noticed. The real problem is that Flight’s trajectory is pretty obvious fairly early on. Audiences savvy to cinema conventions could detail the final sequence down to the quasi-courtroom final showdown before the plane even crashes. Maybe this is what happens when Zemeckis spends the better part of a decade working solely with soulless animated creatures (The Polar Express is still horrifying).
When first announced, Washington’s nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars seemed like further proof that any time Denzel doesn’t play a role where he shoots at Ryan Reynolds, he may win a golden statue. But the truth is, he worked for this role. From his perfect drunken stupor to his authentic(ish) final character arc, he demonstrates why he’s had such a luminous career. But while his acting nod gets a nod of approval, Flight’s screenplay nomination is silly. If you’re not the best addiction movie of the year (Smashed is), how can you be praised for cleverness?
Grade = B-