November, 2012, Drama

 At age 62, director Robert Zemeckis can point with considerable pride to a distinguished career behind the camera comprised of boisterous comedies, (Back to the Future) exotic romances (Romancing The Stone) box office smashes (Cast Away, Forrest Gump) and ground-breaking explorations of new approaches to animation (Polar Express, A Christmas Carol).  After a string of more recent works focused on technical wizardry, Zemeckis has turned to this straightforward drama of self-destruction starring Denzel Washington. The results provide a wonderful showcase for Zemeckis’ special-effects skills and his star’s acting abilities, but the results don’t measure up to the storyline’s premise.

Washington plays “Whip” Whitaker, whose substance abuse problems hide behind a swaggering image as the outstanding pilot for a regional airline in the South. When a mechanical failure occurs on a short flight from Orlando to Atlanta, Whitaker’s seasoned skills result in a nearly miraculous landing that saves the lives of all but a handful of the plane’s 100+ passengers and crew. But a mandatory blood test administered immediately after the accident sets in motion an FAA inquiry that threatens Whip’s career and the circle of friends who come to his support.

Washington has been a marquee name for more than three decades, fashioning an image with audiences more reminiscent of Hollywood’s leading men of the 40’s and ‘50’s than his male contemporaries. In over 50 films, the actor developed a screen persona that fuses good looks, acting talent and that enigmatic substance called “screen presence” in a career which makes his appearances near certain box office success. Now in his early sixties, he still possesses the virility to make a repugnant character interesting and he’s pitch-perfect as Whip, whose cocky manner belies an emotionally distant loner drowning in self-pity and denial. As the date of the FAA hearing approaches, Whitaker first uses then discards a new girlfriend (Kelly Reilly) along with those hired by the airline to defend his heroic skills. Whitaker self-destructively cuts himself off from anyone and everyone who can help see who he is and what’s he’s become.

If the director and his star had been content to present this sobering examination of relentless self-destruction as the cautionary tale it so obviously intends to be, Flight might have been an excellent film rather than merely a good one. But the star’s image must be served and here that occurs in a syrupy climax which allows Whip to find redemption just before he delivers a quasi-sermon on the evils of demon rum. After the lengthy build-up establishing Whips’ moral disintegration in the movie’s first two hours, its saccharine denouement comes as a distinct letdown.

 John Goodman is brilliant as Whip’s do-to supplier of substances, both legal and illegal, while Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are fine as Whip’s union leader and cynical attorney.  But Kelly Reilly’s gal pal is all simpering contrivance; it’s a shame this lovely and talented young actress isn’t given a more nuanced character.

 The Verdict? Professionally handsome in every detail and featuring a powerful performance by Washington that can only bolster his already stellar resume. But in the end, this one’s little more than cleverly-packaged schmaltz.

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