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Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by John Gatins
Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty
Length:   139 minutes
Released:   110212
R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence
“Zemeckis finds just the right tone there, but frequently lays it on in a heavy-handed fashion that frustratingly keeps "Flight" from being a truly great film." 

The people who made “Flight” have done a courageous thing. With all the potential revenue to be had from in-flight movie sales, they have made a movie that is guaranteed to never be shown on an airplane.

Denzel Washington plays Capt. Whip Whitaker, a former Navy ace who now works as an airline pilot. Despite drinking and substance abuse problems, he’s still an ace in the sky, as demonstrated by the film’s terrific opening set piece. After navigating some turbulence, he is jolted from his cockpit nap when a mechanical malfunction hurtles the plane earthward. It’s grace-under-pressure time, and Whip manages to successfully crash land and survive along with most of the crew and passengers.

But lawyers and insurance companies are bearing down, and before long, media hero Whip’s history of alcoholism begins to figure into the official investigation of the accident.

The dilemma posed here is that Whip, although technically drunk, was able to land the plane and save more than 100 lives despite a malfunction that had nothing to do with him. And yet, he clearly poses a lethal safety risk in the air. With the help of a trusted union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a sharp lawyer (Don Cheadle), can he – should he – lie his way out of the investigation and avoid prison?

Director Robert Zemeckis, working from a screenplay by John Gatins, has been loitering in the creepy motion-capture vineyards for a long time: “Christmas Carol” and “Beowulf” are not likely to rank high alongside his “Back to the Future” films or “Forrest Gump” or “Cast Away.” Mixed bag though “Flight” is, I’m glad he’s back with live-action drama.

“Flight” is about the courageousness of an individual who must work his way back to a moral reckoning with himself. By casting Washington as the hero, Zemeckis is already signaling that Whip will, in the end, be redeemed. The trick, as always: making a foregone conclusion seem less than inevitable.

To accomplish this, Whip is loaded down with negatives: Besides his drinking problem, his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son (Justin Martin) despise him, and he jeopardizes not only his own life but the lives of those who care for him. Recuperating in the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering addict, and the romance that follows is sabotaged by his inability to face up to who he is.

To Washington’s credit, he doesn’t turn his performance into one long wallow. He has a tendency to keep his guard up even when he is playing characters for whom it should be down. Not here. He brings some genuine pathos to his scenes, and some hair-trigger panic as well. When he realizes that his drinking could set him up for a very long stretch in prison, he’s beyond shocked: He’s mortified (even though he pretends to be poised).

Still, for all the film’s purported somberness about substance abuse, there are (unintentionally) disconcerting interludes in which John Goodman, as Whip’s slap-happy dealer, strides onto the scene for comic relief. Why should we cheer this pushy pusher?

Zemeckis and Gatins work in a religious angle that never quite coalesces. Whip’s co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is, for reasons not entirely clear, an evangelical hard-liner; the plane crashes in a field of Pentecostal worshipers, clipping a church spire. When it’s pointed out to Whip by his lawyer that the crash can be called an “act of God,” he responds, “Whose God would do this?” It’s window dressing for what, in every other respect, is a straightforward morality play crossed with a pretty good nail-biter.

Movies like this have a way of bringing out the best in Denzel Washington, and his performance here is finely tuned and multi-layered. In portraying Whip, Washington draws on his past work as both a villain and a hero; there are times when the charisma shines through and others when there's a great deal of unsympathetic behavior.

Zemeckis finds just the right tone there, but frequently lays it on in a heavy-handed fashion that frustratingly keeps "Flight" from being a truly great film. This includes a distractingly Scorsese-esque, painfully literal use of rock songs to correspond with the action. (Goodman's character enters to the familiar opening lines of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," for example.)

And the uplifting coda needlessly spells out the hard-earned lessons that would have been more powerful had they been implied. Still, for the most part, "Flight" manages to achieve the tricky balance of functioning as a serious, adult drama that's also crowd-pleasing.

FLIGHT © 2013 Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.



“... dazzles with natural intrigue, but it impacts thanks to its director’s natural storytelling abilities..."  (JR)

“...daring, engrossing, and impeccably crafted, it's a triumph that transcends genre."  (JR)

“As a state-of-the-art action epic and as a character drama, it more than delivers the goods." (JR)