Zemeckis's 'Flight' features Denzel Washington at his best in a powerful character study

Posted by · 6:00 am · October 14th, 2012

NEW YORK — The modest similarities between Robert Zemeckis’s last live action film, 2000’s “Cast Away,” and his latest, “Flight,” are interesting. Both begin with a plane crash that changes a man’s life, a man who goes on a journey of finding himself and restarting his life anew. Both are films about rebirth. One chooses a tale of a company guy stranded on a desert island to convey the theme. The other chooses that of a pilot caught up in a malfeasance nightmare.

Each commits to film one of the most harrowing plane crashes ever seen*, but while Tom Hanks’s time-obsessed protagonist in “Cast Away” learns to take his time through life, Denzel Washington’s addiction-afflicted hero in “Flight” learns to admit his problem to the one person he’s still fooling: himself.

And that’s what the film is about. It may have elements of action filmmaking and courtroom drama, but it is, ultimately, a character study about the sickness of addiction. It captures the embarrassment, the denial, the rage and, crucially, the chronic fallibility that comes with it. The screenplay, from writer John Gatins, pulses with an authenticity that suggests personal experience, but married to a narrative that all but asks whether impairment might have sparked the inspiration to save a hundred lives in a bold way, it becomes something more complex.

At the story’s center, Washington delivers an equally complex performance. His Whip Whitaker is charismatic, embattled, defiant, broken and, ultimately, humbled. And the actor fires on all cylinders, running through a range that marks his most accomplished performance in some time, one certainly rating higher than the two that brought him Oscars in the past.

The film gets going in a hurry, Whitaker’s ear-to-ear grin, the bouncing song choices, a near-numbing crash sequence and the beginnings of the malfeasance drama. But once the plot-driven stuff moves aside it starts to settle in somewhere in the second act and, for some, the gear shift might not work. It just depends on if you’re invested in the character enough to follow that next path, and personally speaking, I was.

But one has to discuss the crash sequence separately. It is a stunning display, all elements of the production — design, photography, sound, editing, visual effects — combining to deliver a memorable cinematic moment. And it’s not just candy. It delivers on theme, too. For a film that so often concerns itself with the concept of an “act of God,” it’s no mistake that the wing of the plane clips a steeple in half upon impact (nor is it, I think, that the line “God help me” is delivered at a surprising moment in the film’s final moments).

Also worth mentioning in the supporting cast is Kelly Reilly as a recovering junkie who understands Whitaker’s ailment all too well, Bruce Greenwood as his union representative and biggest ally, Don Cheadle as his no-nonsense attorney and John Goodman as his flamboyant friend and dealer. It’s a top-notch assortment of performances making for a solid ensemble.

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the powerful way James Badge Dale blows in and out of the movie in one of its most poignant and, for me, memorable scenes as a cancer patient bearing wisdom. The actor reportedly dropped 20 pounds to play the part after Zemeckis called him “too healthy” for the role and you can see why he wanted to take it on. Others might not be as touched by the moment as I was but it was a big takeaway for me and a real grace note.

Awards-wise, it’s a little tough to say at the moment. Washington faces a difficult Best Actor race but he’ll get the campaign of his life, surely: this is Paramount’s baby this year. The screenplay deserves some real consideration, but it could fall short of films with more overt gravitas and/or fare not perceived in such commercial territory. I really couldn’t say until more get a look and I can ask around, but I certainly think it’s a great counter-intuitive choice in a year packed with the usual bait and I hope it finds its audience.

With that — well, with tonight’s gala premiere of the film, I should say — the 50th annual New York Film Festival comes to a close. It was a success by all accounts and a real treat for a first-timer. I’ll put a bow on soon enough, but for now, chalk the closing night presentation up as a winner.

“Flight” opens everywhere November 2.

*It’s worth noting Joe Carnahan’s contribution to cinematic plane crashes this year, as his vision of one in “The Grey” was just as harrowing if not more so than the pair Zemeckis has given us.

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