“Flight” a flashy, flawed Denzel drama

There’s a pivotal moment in the drama “Flight” where Denzel Washington has had a particularly bad night of drinking. This wouldn’t be a problem — as the film repeatedly shows, his airline pilot can operate in insanely stressful conditions while zonked as shit — but he has a government-run hearing in about 45 minutes. This is an actor who’s made a career playing civil-rights activists, cops, Union soldiers, and near-Biblical figures of confidence and morality. So what does he do? Call up his coke dealer, bump a few lines, wipe his nose, put on his Aviators and swagger his way out of his trashed hotel room.

It’s a moment for those with the darkest sense of humor. It’s such a subversion of everything we expect in Washington, in the normally goody-two-shoes director Robert Zemeckis (of “Forrest Gump” and “A Christmas Carol”), and Hollywood at large. But the way in which it marks a turning point in his character’s arc, using dark humor to underline the pathetic struggles of this man’s fixation, is truly masterful. Truly complex. And pretty much an isolated incident in “Flight”, which is a competently written, well-directed film that succumbs to sentimentality and over-explanation just as it seems to get really, really interesting. (After the aforementioned scene, it’s worth noting.)

You know the “stressful conditions” I referred to earlier, that Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, can deftly navigate? Well, early in “Flight”, in the film’s obvious centerpiece, Whip pulls out an utter miracle and crash-lands his plane from a nose-dive at 30,000 feet, with 96 of 102 souls saved. It’s a terrifying 20-minute set-piece, although much of the horror comes from our own build-ups and expectations. (The marketing, having to commercially sell a film about a frequently relapsing alcoholic, has understandably played up this scene quite a bit.)

But what is scariest for Whip is the aftermath of the flight: the prying eye of the press, his newfound public image as a hero, and, well, uh, blood tests indicating that he had alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine in his system at the time of the accident. If they come to light legally, he could be in prison for the rest of his life. He begins a romantic involvement with recovering heroin addict Nicole, but the real core of “Flight” is Whip’s battle with the bottle.

Director Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker I greatly respect and admire, but one often ponders if he was right for this job. Highlights from his career include a scene where Tom Hanks emotionally screamed for a volleyball (The “WIIIIILLLSON!!!” scene in “Cast Away”) and an adaptation of a 9th-century Old English poem (“Beowulf”) that managed to get a scene of full-frontal nudity from star Angelina Jolie. My point? Subtlety isn’t this guy’s forté.

And given that a good idea of “Flight”‘s drama is what is simmering inside the mind of a man whose characters are historically guarded and reserved, it’s often a film that feels slightly out of step with itself: often overplaying moments worthy of merely a glance, or explaining in a character’s monologue what should have been shown through his actions. Denzel’s final speech at the film’s end is particularly cringe-worthy. This is an actor with two Academy Awards laying around his house. To have him use his voice, rather than his body or face to communicate his darkest feelings and deepest shames? It’s a shame. Dude’ll probably still pick up an Academy Award nomination for his work here, but John Gatins’ script disservices him.

The mixed spiritual signals that “Flight” sends present a problem, too, and not necessarily because they clash (or align, for that matter) with mine. The film makes frequent allusions to the flight’s crash as an “act of God”, offering little explanation as to how the six lost lives fit into that picture. Side characters often offer Whip religion as an escape from the bottle and from his demons, yet the film hints that he’s tried this before with little success. I mean, Jesus, as the flight crashes, a wing literally annihilates a CHURCH STEEPLE.

There’s references, but where’s the context? What do these add up to? I’m not sure there’s much. In the end, we are left with another masterful Denzel performance, a plane-crash sequence for the ages, and the most obnoxious usage of the song “Gimme Shelter” in a long, long cinematic history of people obnoxiously plugging the Stones. These are not subtle pleasures, and this lack of grace occasionally proves to be “Flight”‘s un-doing. But it tries. In an industry that’s generally on auto-pilot (hah!), that’s truly worth something. B

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