It’s a safe bet that “Flight” will not show up as an in-flight movie any time soon.
In Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action feature since “Cast Away,” Denzel Washington plays an alcoholic pilot who becomes a national hero after he safely crash-lands a malfunctioning commercial airplane and saves nearly everyone on board. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines premise (well, OK, ripped-from-the-headlines-of-2009) that echoes the heroics of Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, who crash-landed Flight 1549 onto the Hudson and also became a national hero, with the exception that Sully hadn’t just polished off a beer and Hoovered up two lines of cocaine before take-off.
The crash sequence in “Flight” is simultaneously terrifying and intense — Zemeckis knows how to crash planes on film, as “Flight” and “Cast Away” have proven. But it takes place in the early moments of the 138-minute “Flight,” leaving about 110 minutes of unconvincing melodrama and criminally redundant binges to go. Washington is at the top of his game in the film — name one movie where he isn’t the most compelling character? — but the movie itself is hindered by shaky storytelling, and I had a great big problem in the way it turns Washington’s drug and alcohol abuse into a joke.
There is no doubt the movie means to condemn the behavior of people who put others in harm’s way for their own selfish purposes, but that message is muddied in “Flight” because it spends so much time assuring us Washington will never learn his lesson and because Zemeckis has this annoying habit of cranking up some upbeat oldies tune (“Feelin’ Alright,” “Sympathy for the Devil”) whenever Washington is getting nice and toasty. Are we supposed to be cheering him on? John Goodman, as Washington’s zonked-out dealer of sorts, is clearly meant to be comic relief, but what’s funny about supplying another character with the one thing we’re supposed to be rooting for him to lick?
Despite my objections to the wonky storytelling in “Flight,” there are a few things in its favor that are definitely worth seeing. Certainly, that includes the top-notch performance from Washington, but Zemeckis also gets terrific supporting work out of Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo and especially Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes”) as a heroin addict Washington meets in the hospital and develops a kinship with over the course of the film. “Flight” roots for Reilly to kick her habit as much as it does for Washington to kick his, so it’s a bit strange the studio felt the need to cut her story out of the advertising completely.
Not that the previews give you much of an impression of how “Flight” truly plays anyway. It looks like an action movie, with lots of character actors popping up (Don Cheadle is in the movie, too) to speak fast, witty dialogue. Truthfully, the film is closer to a downbeat melodrama, with Washington struggling to commit to AA and running around trying to convince everyone in the cast that he doesn’t have a dependency problem. You could think of it as Denzel’s “Lost Weekend,” except even that movie had the good sense not to turn its main character’s struggle into a sick joke.
★★½ (out of ★★★★)
Rated R for language, nudity, drug use and grisly images. 138 minutes, 2012.
Director: Robert Zemeckis. Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly.