[Review] – Flight

10 Nov

Title: Flight
Year: 2012
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty
MPAA Rating: R, drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence
Runtime: 138 min
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Metacritic: 76

We had heard a lot of things about Flight before actually seeing it. For one thing, it marked the return to live-action filmmaking of Robert Zemeckis, territory that he hadn’t visited since 2000 when he directed Cast Away. Since then he’s been busy tinkering with his beloved motion-capture technology in The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. So, getting the guy who had given us not only Cast Away, but Back to the Future and Forrest Gump back to making what he made best was already an event of note.

We had also heard about Denzel Washington‘s lead performance as Whip Whitaker and how it was being heavily touted for Oscar attention. Well, it’s now pretty much a lock that Mr. Washington will garner his sixth nomination for this role, which ranks amongst the meatiest and most complex characters he’s gotten to play in his justly celebrated career. A role like this is made for someone like Denzel Washington, for a real movie star who earned that title thanks to genuine chops and charisma and not for playing the publicity game. It allows him to charm the hell out of us while also digging real deep inside himself to show us the very dark parts of the pilot he’s playing.

Another thing we had heard about is the plane crash that the movie is all about. The film pretty much opens with it. We get Whip waking up in an Orlando hotel room with a flight attendant after a night of sex and booze, he then takes a sniff of cocaine to really get himself going and then proceeds to board an aircraft he was supposed to captain to Atlanta. There’s some turbulence but Whip shrugs it away, discreetly mixes himself a drink and takes a nap while his co-pilot, played by Brian Geraghty, deals with it.

Then he wakes up because something’s awfully wrong with the plane which is going in steep dive and he instinctively turns the plane upside down and manages to crash-land it in a field. We had heard about this scene not only because it was the big action set piece usually relegated to the climax of the movie, not to the start, and because it was just so damn intense. It really is one of the most riveting cinematic moments of the year, that scene alone should get this film Oscar nods in the sound departments, it terrified the shit out of me because how well it was done.

The crash, like I said, is just the beginning. Whip awakens in a hospital, without major injuries, greeted as a total hero after having saved all but six of the 102 people on board thanks to his fast thinking. He’s the talk of the town, all is dandy until it’s revealed that, while he was unconscious, the National Transportation Safety Board performed a toxicology screen which showed his state, something that threatened to send Whip to jail, not only on the drug charges but also on manslaughter ones.

That’s what Flight really is all about and that’s why we’re so damn lucky to have an actor of caliber of Denzel Washington in charge of bringing it all to life. It’s a character study of a very complicated man and we have one of the greatest actors alive playing him, giving us one of the best performances he’s ever given in what’s already a legendary career, delivering these little nuanced moments that fill out his performance perfectly.

What I loved so much about the role and performance was that it made me think two things. On the one hand I had fun thinking of a lesser actor playing this role, and how he would have just been swallowed by it and the film would have been a failure. But it also got me thinking about how damn good Denzel Washington can be when he wants to. I just watched an actors roundtable The Hollywood Reporter did (with Mr. Washington, Matt Damon, John Hawkes, Alan Arkin, Richard Gere and Jamie Foxx – I highly recommend it) and this is a man who’s all about his craft and how can deliver good performances in his sleep, but he delivers these performances, the truly great ones, when the role just challenges him, when what would make that lesser actor fail pushes him to do his best.

It really is the Denzel Washington show, no matter how many other great actors he’s surrounded with (John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Don Cheadle all appear here). He takes us through a desperately agonizing personal journey and, because of that movie star charisma I referenced earlier, always keeps us invested in him, giving him our sympathy, wanting him to come out of it unscathed. What’s more amazing is that, as you might imagine, there are countless opportunities for scenery chewing, to really go all out in acting style and Mr. Washington doesn’t take up those chances. Instead he keeps it grounded and does with his body, with his eyes specially, things far more effective than any amount of shouting and big acting could have achieved.

By the way, when I say Whip gets our sympathies I don’t mean that in the schmaltzy, manipulative way. No, Mr. Zemeckis never tells us what to think about this character, and that’s one of the many reasons why I’m glad he’s back doing these films. This is grown-up filmmaking, made for a sophisticated audience by a director that, smartly, trusts them to be able to form their own opinions about it to enrich his narrative. He gets the big action sequence in at the beginning and after that doesn’t pump up the drama, he just lets it be and even though it’s true that this is Mr. Washington’s show we’re damn lucky he got Mr. Zemeckis to set the stage for him to perform in.

Grade: A-

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