If Flight had consisted solely of its first half-hour, it would be an incredible and fantastic film. In staging the crash of Southjet flight 227, director Robert Zemeckis has outdone himself. The sequence is amazing, and stands with the best of his work in Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Contact, and of course Cast Away, which featured a pretty spectacular crash of his own.
The rest of the film is very different. And while it’s an excellent character study, it centers around a thoroughly ordinary narrative of alcoholism, addiction, and redemption. It is executed well, but after the plane goes down the film swings from the underwhelming to the overbearing, giving us nothing we don’t already want to see.
The crash is, as many characters would put it, an act of God. Something breaks and suddenly the plane is in a power dive towards the ground. The only reason anyone walks away is Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington). He talks his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and one of the flight attendants (Tamara Tunie) through a maneuver that manages to stabilize the plane enough to put it down hard in a field outside Atlanta. No pilot could do in simulations what he pulled off, and he clearly saved a hundred lives.
The catch, though, is that Whitaker is addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and was on both during the flight. His pilots’ union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and his lawyer (Don Cheadle) will work to keep his condition secret and put the blame on the mechanical failure, but if found out he’s facing jail time even if absolved of responsibility for the crash. But we know basically where things are headed, culminating in those four inevitable words: “I am an alcoholic”.
Of course if Whitaker is going to resist he needs a foil who embraces recovery and provides the example for him to reject. In the hospital he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a junkie who wants to get clean after her recent overdose. He offers her a place to stay at his father’s old farmhouse and they settle in, she to her meetings and he to his investigation.
Nuance is not Zemeckis’ strong suit here. Everything is big and bold, and pretty clearly telegraphed. If Alan Silvestri’s score isn’t enough to tell the audience how to feel in a given scene there’s the pointed choice of music: Whitaker’s dealer (John Goodman) walks in to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”; after a cocaine bump Joe Cocker is “Feelin’ Alright”; Nicole shoots up to the Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane”. Even the first sound we hear as a clock radio alarm goes off is the closing lines of Barenaked Ladies’ “Alcohol”, and we are later treated to a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends”, in case the scene isn’t clear enough already.
That said, Zemeckis does make the obvious turns look pretty incredible, and Washington does an impeccable job with a familiar archetype. This is not by any means a bad film, and would be worth the price of admission for the crash sequence alone. But in its run-of-the-mill treatment of the addiction narrative at its core, John Gatins’ script shows a lack of ambition and originality. Still, since most filmgoers won’t have a chance to see Smashed in theaters, Flight is probably the best they’re going to get.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.