Dance To The Rhythm And Booze

Gather ‘round. Let’s have a moment of silence for Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture career. It’s been twelve long years since “Cast Away,” and while the motion-capture process has been integral to the success of many films (most notably, the live-action “Avatar”), it’s hardly been the revolution that Zemeckis was pushing for. “The Polar Express” made money, as did “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” but the response to each was fairly tepid. Audiences made it clear that they still love seeing their movie stars onscreen, rather than watching some animated composite that was made possible by computer wizardry. If Zemeckis wants to return to that arena, he absolutely should, but his return to the world of the living was entirely worth the wait. “Flight” feels like that classic end-of-the-year amalgam of Hollywood elegance and challenging material, destined for award season attention in the New Year. And despite its streamlined ad campaign, the faint hearted need not apply.

“Flight” is soulful and bluesy and not at all the crowd-pleaser that you might expect. In that way it’s a bit of a conundrum. The less you know, the better, but no one should walk in cold. It’s rampant with drug and alcohol abuse, short on action, and high on emotional turmoil – and it’s one of the best films of 2012. You can take its title at face value – yes, it is about an airline pilot – but if you think that’s where the meaning of “flight” ends, you’re in for a jolt. The screenplay pulls no punches and Zemeckis’ masterful direction goes a long way in reminding us of what a talent he is. The film is also a terrific showcase for Denzel Washington, one of the great American actors, giving him some of his most challenging material to date. He’s sleepwalked through some roles as of late, but he knocks this one out of the park.

Let’s stick to the basics. Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who masterfully lands a flight that’s suffered mechanical failure. However, he’s accused of impaired flying, made more troublesome by the fact that a few passengers didn’t make it off the plane unscathed. While in the hospital, Whitaker meets a lonely, drug-addled woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and the two strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more over the course of the film. Bruce Greenwood plays Charlie Anderson, a friend of Whip’s and head of the Pilots Union, and Don Cheadle plays Hugh Lang, Whip’s airline-appointed attorney. John Goodman gets more of an extended cameo as another of Whip’s friends, but he makes the most of a shady character that’s perpetually “on the list.”

The film is a very deliberate slow burn, and the second act is almost all character development. The first act and the accompanying plane crash is certainly a stunner, but when the picture slows to a crawl, some moviegoers will be caught off guard. However, the precision with which writer John Gatins develops his characters is commendable, and since “Flight” is most certainly a character study, each narrative thread is designed to (and does) pay off in the end. Despite an element of mystery, it’s not a film of twists. But, the angular nature of the story provides some definite surprises and for much of the film, I had no idea where it was going – a rare and exhilarating experience in 2012. The way things are wrapped up is both logical and satisfying and I expect most audiences will be fulfilled by the picture’s conclusion.

Not only is Denzel Washington incredible in the film, but his presence is essential to its success. The character of Whip is inimitably complex, and at times, outright unlikable. Having such a familiar face to guide the audience through the narrative is irreplaceable. Zemeckis’ direction is equally significant. He lets the camera linger when it needs to (see: the opening scene) and goes handheld when the script calls for more visual momentum. His technical agility allows him to nail the horror of the plane crash while his storytelling chops benefit the movie elsewhere. Between Washington’s singular performance and Zemeckis’ extraordinary direction, “Flight” sees one of the more revelatory actor/director combinations in recent memory. They clearly bring out the best in each other and I hope this is just the beginning of their working relationship.

“Flight” is as deeply felt as any film I’ve seen this year, one that’s stayed with me for days. Accenting action with drama is a common cinematic occurrence, but accenting drama with action is almost unheard of – add to that a dash of humor and you’ve got a very unique and impeccably made movie that deserves to be seen by anyone that craves quality, grown-up cinema. Whip Whitaker is Washington’s best role since “Training Day” and Zemeckis seems to relish the opportunity to work outside his comfort zone (most of his films have been decidely family-friendly). Ours isn’t a world of black and white, so it’s fitting that these characters are drawn so painstakingly in grayscale, each with their own gifts and tragic flaws. And cinema has never seen an antihero quite like Whip Whitaker.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 2, 2012
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, John Goodman, Tamara Tunie
MPAA Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)