“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

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“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

For years, I thought that director Robert Zemeckis had lost his way. I thought the Academy Award he had won for the 1994 movie, “FOREST GUMP” had transformed a talented and slightly eccentric filmmaker into a pretentious and boring one. 

I realize this is a cruel thing to say. Robert Zemeckis had been one of my favorite directors ever since I first saw his 1978 comedy, “I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND” on television. But after he won a Best Director Oscar for “GUMP”, he seemed to have lost his touch. I am not saying that movies like “CONTACT”“WHAT LIES BENEATH” and “CASTAWAY” were terrible. For me, they seemed to lack that Zemeckis touch that had made his previous movies magical for me. But after seeing the director’s latest endeavor, “FLIGHT”, I believe there is a good chance that he may have regained his mojo.

“FLIGHT” tells the story of an airline pilot, who manages to prevent a flight between Orlando and Atlanta from perishing in a fatal crash. Only six people – four passengers and two stewardesses – die in the crash. An investigation of the crash reveals not only malfunctions within the plane, but also evidence of alcohol use by the crew, especially by the pilot, one Whip Whitaker. Whip had used cocaine before the flight to keep himself alert and imbibed alcohol during the flight. The airline pilots’ union hires Hugh Lang to defend Whip and prevent the latter from serving time in prison for drug and manslaughter charges. Lang claims he can get the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)‘s toxicology report declared inadmissible in court and focus the investigation on the plane’s malfunctions. But both he and Whip’s friend and union representative, Charlie Anderson, gradually become aware that Whip is a hardcore alcoholic and drug abuser. And his addictions might stand in the way of any successful defense on Lang’s part.

I am not stating that “FLIGHT” is perfect. It had one or two aspects I found questionable. One, I thought a movie that is basically a character study of an alcoholic airline pilot possibly facing the consequences of his substance abuse should not have a running time of 139 minutes. Yes, I believe it was at least fifteen to twenty minutes too long. And one of the scenes I would have trimmed featured a cameo appearance by the very talented James Badge Dale. Do not get me wrong. I thought that Badge Dale gave a superb performance as a cancer patient that Whip Whitaker and future girlfriend/fellow addict Nicole Maggen met in a hospital hallway. Unless Badge Dale had said something that related to the story (and if he did, someone please enlighten me), I saw no reason to include his character into the story. My other problem has a good deal to do with a repentant Whip recounting his alcoholism and drug use to a counseling group. Honestly, it felt as if Bob Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins injected a segment from an episode of the “ABC AFTERSCHOOL” television series . . . and that Whip was talking to a group of high school students.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that “FLIGHT” really impressed me. The last time I saw a movie or television series about an alcoholic was CBS’s “KNOT’S LANDING” in which the Gary Ewing character (portrayed by actor Ted Shackleford) experienced his last bout of alcoholism and recovery. It was ugly to watch. Since then, I have made a point of deliberately avoiding movies about alcoholics and drug abusers. At least two family members have died from the consequences of drug abuse. When I sat down in a movie theater to watch “FLIGHT”, I never thought that Denzel Washington would be portraying such a hardcore substance abuser. But you know what? I am glad that I saw the movie.

There are many aspects about “FLIGHT” that I truly enjoyed. Thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ direction, Don Burgess’ cinematography and award worthy editing by Jeremiah O’Driscoll, the movie featured a kick ass plane crash sequence that left me breathless and wired at the same time. It was a beautiful thing to watch and worthy of a series of Academy Awards technical nominations. But more importantly, Gatnis created a superb portrayal of the alcoholic airline pilot that gave plenty of meat for both Zemeckis and actor Denzel Washington. Some of the movie’s best moments aside from the actual crash included Whip’s future girlfriend, Nicole Maggen, nearly dying from a heroin overdose; Lang and Whip’s meeting with the president of the airlines; Whip and Nicole’s conflict over his constant drinking; Whip’s confrontation with his ex-wife and son; Lang’s chewing out Whip about the latter’s legal situation; and Whip’s failed attempt to resist consuming booze he found in a mini bar in a hotel room. My two favorite scenes featured the attempts of Whip’s colorful friend/drug dealer Harling Mays to help him recover from another alcoholic binge before he can testify before a NTSB hearing . . . and the actual hearing itself, which ended with a surprising twist.

The performances for “FLIGHT” were superb. I could not find a bad or mediocre performance from any member of the cast. Not one. I have already pointed out James Badge Dale’s excellent performance as a cancer patient that Whip and Nicole briefly met. I was also impressed by Tamara Tunie’s stalwart, yet emotional performance as senior flight attendant Margaret Thomason; Brian Geraghty as Whip’s religious co-pilot Ken Evans, who lost the use of his legs; Peter Gerety’s colorful portrayal of airline owner Avington Carr; and Nadine Velazquez’s solid performance as Katerina Marquez, the recently deceased flight attendant who had been Whip’s lover.

But the performances that really caught my eye came from Melissa Leo, who gave a brief, yet subtle performance as lead NTSB investigator Ellen Block; John Goodman, who was deliciously larger than life as Whip’s friend and drug dealer, Harling Mays; and Bruce Greenwood’s quiet, yet emotional portrayal of Whip’s much put upon friend, Charlie Anderson.  Don Cheadle (who last worked with Washington in the 1995 movie, “DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS”) gave a superb performance, while acting as more or less the backbone of the movie as Whip’s uber talented attorney, Hugh Lang. Kelly Reilly finally caught the eyes of critics in her excellent portrayal of recovering drug addict, Nicole Maggen, who ends up falling for Whip.

But the man of the hour was Denzel Washington. Ever since winning his second Academy Award, eleven years ago, he has given a series of solid or excellent performances in movies that were either successful or not. But it was plain to me that his performance as alcoholic Whip Whitaker was one of his very best in years. Washington was always at his best when portraying characters that were complex – with both likeable and dislikeable traits. Only a true performer, in my opinion, is not afraid to tackle such a character. As the last twenty to thirty years of superb performances have shown, Washington has never been afraid to tackle such characters like Whip.  And for his efforts, he earned both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

“FLIGHT” may have suffered from a running time that I found too long and an ending that struck me as a little too adolescent for my tastes. But I must admit that it has become for me one of the best movies I have seen in 2012. As a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis has returned in top form. And his endeavors were assisted by excellent photography and editing, a top-notch screenplay by John Gatins and first-rate performances from a talented cast led by the always superb Denzel Washington.

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