Review: ‘Flight’ takes Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington on an unexpected trip

Robert Zemeckis has never made anything like “Flight,” and Denzel Washington has rarely played a character this damaged.  I frequently feel like studio movies arrive somewhat predigested because of how many times we’ve seen variations on the same basic formulas, and when you do run into something that takes its own path, that tells its own story in a way you’re not expecting, it can be positively shocking.  Working from a strong piece of material by John Gatins, Zemeckis seems to be trying something that is, for him, both new and a clear representation of the things that make him most interesting as a filmmaker.

I remember seeing Spike Lee talk about the making of “Mo’ Better Blues,” and one of the things that he said made the film difficult to shoot was a firm rule from Denzel Washington that he did not want to do any elaborate love scenes or any sort of onscreen nudity with a female co-star because of his own offscreen marriage.  As good as he is, there’s often a sense that he’s holding back something, that he is careful about his image.  It’s the sort of thing that I think often affects Will Smith’s choices as a movie star as well, and it can be hard to let go of after you’ve lived with it for a long time.  I couldn’t help but think about that when we first see Denzel in this film, in bed with Nadine Velazquez, finishing a beer for breakfast and doing a rail to wake himself up as she walks around the room totally nude.  At one point, he gives a sideways glance right up her backside as he talks on the phone, and there is a world weary quality to the beat that is both funny and immediately crushing.  This is the sort of performance where there’s no personal vanity involved, and there’s no thought of Denzel as Denzel.

Whip Whittaker is a high-functioning mess, a great pilot with a terrible life, and at the start of the film, he reports to work still drunk and high from the night before.  He spent the night with one of his flight attendants, and we get the feeling he’s just conducting business as usual.  We see that he’s flying with flight crew he knows well and a co-pilot he’s never met before (Brian Geraghty), and most of them know exactly what kind of person he is.  He naps during the flight, sneaks several mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice, and generally unnerves his co-pilot.  Still, everything seems fine until they get ready to start their descent.

Unsurprisingly, Robert Zemeckis turns the harrowing plane crash that follows into one of the year’s most nerve-wracking sequences, expertly staged and horrifyingly imagined.  In the middle of the chaos, Whip responds with a presence of mind and a calm that is almost miraculous, and he pulls a one-in-a-million move that allows him to make a mostly successful landing even as the plane comes apart around him.  Everything about the sequence is masterful, from performance to direction to sound and visual effects.  It’s powerfully staged, and like many of the best sequences in Zemeckis’s filmography, it marries cutting edge technology to performance to create something that feels real.

What surprised me about the film is that the plane crash is just the start of the story for Whip.  When he wakes up in the hospital, amazed that he’s alive, he quickly learns that there are both pros and cons to what happened.  The pro is that he saved all but six people onboard the plane, and his quick thinking managed to do something that should have been impossible.  The con is that his blood toxicology reports show that he was smashed during the flight.  And while most people would take that as a sign to change their ways, Whip has no sense of self-preservation, and if anything, he accelerates his slide into self-destruction.

Obviously, there is a long tradition of films about addiction and rehab, and if “Flight” was just a story about a guy struggling with the bottle, that would be a fairly routine take on the material.  Instead, Whip is treated as an individual, not an emblem of addiction.  His struggles are personal, and there is a real ugliness to much of what we see from him.  No matter how much people like his union rep (Bruce Greenwood) or his lawyer (Don Cheadle) try to help him, he’s not interested.  He practically welcomes rock bottom.  When he does reach out to someone, it’s a junkie named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who he meets in the hospital, and it’s at least in part because he figures she’s just as big a mess as he is, so there’s no way she’s going to judge him.

Zemeckis has had several different incarnations as a filmmaker.  I love the early crazy Zemeckis/Gale years and movies like “Used Cars” and “Romancing The Stone.”  Obviously, the “Back To The Future” films and “Roger Rabbit” represent the technical wizardry that was a big part of how he was defined.  There was a stretch of his filmography where it felt like he was trying to figure out how to marry the technical mastery of his earlier work with new subjects, and no matter how you feel about “Forrest Gump” or “Death Becomes Her” or “What Lies Beneath” or “Cast Away,” they are fascinating next steps for him as a filmmaker.  His left turn into the world of performance capture animation was responsible for “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “The Polar Express,” and while I don’t think any of them work fully as films, I love the way he committed to the storytelling form and helped push it forward for other filmmakers, many of whom feel like they are still catching up to what he did.

For my money, though, the last time I felt completely satisfied by a Zemeckis film was “Contact,” based on the Carl Sagan novel, and I think it has some things in common with “Flight.”  Both are films about people who have no place in their lives for a belief in a higher power, people who are extraordinary in many ways but who seem unable to make their personal lives work in the same way their professional lives do.  “Contact” basically asked if an extraordinary person was excused for personal failings if it turned out they were right, and “Flight” asks if being exceptional at one thing is enough to justify an almost total failing as a human being in other regards.  Zemeckis seems drawn to the notion of people who are gifted and driven but who are unable to handle even the basic rules of social conduct.

Frequent Zemeckis collaborators like cinematographer Don Burgess and composer Alan Silvestri turn in wonderful nuanced work here, and the entire cast is on their game.  John Goodman has a showy smaller role as Whip’s dealer, and it is a testament to just how well the film walks a moral tightrope that there is a moment in the film where the audience is actively rooting for Denzel to do enough cocaine that he will be okay to testify at an FAA hearing, with the audience laughing at every joke Goodman delivers.  Even in small roles, actors like Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, and Garcelle Beauvais do very good work.  James Badge Dale has only one scene in the movie, but it’s a knockout, a late-night encounter in a hospital stairwell between him, Whip, and Nicole, and it was right around the end of that scene that I handed myself over to John Gatins and his script.  My main reference point for Kelly Reilly are her largely thankless appearances in the two “Sherlock Holmes” films as Watson’s wife, but she has a credible air of rumpled, bruised beauty here, and she never became the easy angel that I was afraid the film would try to make her.  Washington has to carry the whole film.  If he doesn’t work in the movie, the movie doesn’t work.  Period.  This is the sort of raw nerve work that I love, and Washington lays himself out there with his choices.  There’s a moment where he tries to visit his ex-wife and his 15-year-old son that is as emotionally raw as anything I’ve seen in a film this year, and I love the choices he makes in that scene.  He doesn’t do anything I expected, and it’s that unexpected quality to his choices that make him so compelling even when he’s being an awful human being.  

While I think the film’s music supervisor hobbles the film with some brutally on-the-nose choices (there should never ever ever ever be a scene with someone shooting heroin while the Velvet Underground plays in any film ever again), and the last few minutes of the film try to put too neat a bow on what is otherwise a complex character piece, for much of its running time, “Flight” represents exactly the sort of smart, direct adult filmmaking that we frequently complain Hollywood is incapable of producing anymore.

It has been too long since we’ve seen Robert Zemeckis swing for the fences, and his return to live-action turns out to be one of the most heartfelt and human movies of his career.

“Flight” opens in theaters everywhere on November 2, 2012.