I love Robert Zemeckis. I’ve enjoyed most of his films. USED CARS and ROMANCING THE STONE are fun. BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT or 2 of my favorite films of all time. DEATH BECOMES HER is silly fun. CAST AWAY and FORREST GUMP are masterpieces. I even love his motion capture work, especially BEOWULF and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I thought POLAR EXPRESS was just okay, and CONTACT was disappointing for me. The only movie I hated of his was WHAT LIES BENEATH. But now, after 12 years, Zemeckis has finally made another live-action film, and his choice in material is definitely an unexpected one.
Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot named Whip. He’s a hardcore alcoholic who does cocaine on occasion. After a night of heavy drinking, he heads off to work where he’s supposed to fly a plane from Orlando to Atlanta. Quick and easy, right? Wrong. It’s storming quite heavily. Something happens mechanically to the plane as it goes into a nose dive. Just as it’s about to crash, Whip turns the plane upside down to stop the decent, then turns it back around to slide the plane down on an open field. There are 6 casualties, but he saved the lives of the hundred other passengers on board. The bad thing is, Whip was technically drunk and had cocaine in his system when he did this. The Toxicology report confirms this. This is bad, since it could mean that Whip may go to jail for several years (maybe even life) for manslaughter. Oh yeah, and Whip meets a drug addict named Nicole who tries to help him with his drinking problem.
The opening of the movie grabs you right away, as Whip wakes up to a fully naked woman in his hotel room. Then the flight sequence that follows is one of the most horrifying and suspenseful sequences of the year. I hate to fly. I’m a very neurotic and nervous person, so I was having an extremely hard time sitting still while watching the crash scene. I loved how Whip is completely calm the whole time. It’s without a doubt that he was the only one capable of landing that plane. The movie poses many questions. questions that are hard to answer. Should Whip be held accountable for his drinking, even though he saved the lives of hundreds? What should his punishment be? Should he get away scot-free?
While the first 30 minutes is completely engaging and well executed, the rest of the movie turns out to be quite different. We see Whip drink, snort cocaine, drink, stop drinking, start drinking again, binge drinking, stop drinking, drink some more…. and, oh yeah, he drinks in this movie too. There are some good movies that deal with alcoholism (THE LOST WEEKEND, LEAVING LAS VEGAS), but this isn’t one of them. Whip’s alcoholism is presented in such an overwrought and heavy-handed manner, that it borderlines on self-parody. I laughed my ass off during some pretty serious scenes, just cause it became so over-the-top. So yeah, through the whole movie Whip is struggling with his drinking, even though he shouldn’t be drinking since he’s under investigation. The movie tries to manipulate you to care for Whip, but I really didn’t. They try to give him a romantic interest with that junkie girl, but she disappears halfway through the film, with no satisfying resolution. Maybe that was the point, I guess.
Denzel Washington is one of our best actors working today, and he delivers a heartfelt, intense and emotionally powerful performance. There’s no denying that. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as his friend and lawyer give decent performances as the people trying to get him off the hook. I also liked Kelly Reilly as Nicole. But the rest of the actors feel like they’re in a different movie. There’s a guy who shows up in a hospital stairway who has cancer, and gives a scenery chewing monologue. He didn’t seem like a real character at all, but a fabricated one. Nicole’s landlord also felt like a “movie” character, not a “real” character, with his phony southern drawl. But John Goodman bugged the shit out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s one of the best actors out there, but his performance belonged in a completely different film. He plays Whip’s drug dealer friend who spawns a long pony tail and dresses like he’s going to a Rolling Stones concert. It’s a boisterous, comic performance that seems to be trying to generate laughs from the audience. There’s nothing real about this character at all. It’s one of those characters that only exist in the movies. Couldn’t stand him here. Sorry John.
Zemeckis is certainly a talented filmmaker, and it’s evident in the film’s crash sequence. But if a gifted director is given garbage material, he most likely won’t be able to make roses out of it. The script is just so overwrought and manipulative. It became very painful and embarrassing for me to watch at times. The worst part is when Whip has been sober for a week, then he walks into an empty hotel room next to his. It’s completely quiet….. then the humming of the mini-fridge is heard. Whip slowly turns his head and walks over to it. He opens it up to find a shit tone of booze. He picks up a bottle and sets it on the counter. After looking at it for a few moments, he walks away….. the camera hold the shot for 30 seconds……. then you see his hand grab it. This is the exact kind of over-the-top manipulation I hate in movies. Hmmmmmm. I didn’t know that drinking was bad…. thanks!
Now, I’m sure I must be wrong about this movie cause it’s getting lots of praise from my fellow film critics. And the audience at my press screening seemed to really like it. But I didn’t buy into this Hollywood crap for a second. It has one amazing sequence in the beginning and a fine performance from Washington, but the way it deals with alcoholism is like a glitzy afterschool special. Let’s hope Zemeckis will go back to making entertaining movies again. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.
– Running time: 2hrs 18min.
(check out what Film Geek Central’s other critic, Jesse Hoheisel, had to say about FLIGHT, here)