For a director who has spent the last decade toiling in the still nebulous terrain of computer generated imagery, Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, Flight, is decidedly grounded, eschewing the radically innovative technological impulse of Zemeckis’ past work and centering its focus on individuals making do with their lot in life. With the exception of its jolting first-act spectacle – the disastrous flight from which the film gains its title – Zemeckis' latest commits to a low-key atmosphere of psychological introspection, shifting the director's emphasis on soaring movement, eye-popping lights, and huge ensembles to a much humbler canvas: the contours and minuscule eruptions in Denzel Washington's pudgy, sunken face, the use of conversation as the primary dramatic activity, and a pastoral working-class milieu where the villain is as small-scale as a nip of Smirnoff. Zemeckis reportedly sacrificed his initial sum of cash to encourage Paramount to back the project, and the personal compromise clearly reflects the artistic development. Flight feels like a conscious simplification of expression for the 61-year-old Spielberg descendant even as it repurposes his showstopping wizardry to less transparent ends.
At the center of Flight is the towering performance of Washington as alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker. By now it's become relatively par for the course that Washington should contribute an air of authenticity and tactility to even the most paper-thin Hollywood stories, overshadowing and sometimes obliterating the integrity of the supporting characters and subplots around him. That's nearly the case here, though it's also fair to say that Flight never intends itself to be anything less than a muscular Denzel Washington vehicle; Washington is the spotlight, and the fact that secondary elements of the script feel underdeveloped or weakened by heavy-handed execution only supplies greater significance to Washington's act of dramatic immersion. The film opens with Whip dozing after an all-night binge of sex and drugs with airline hostess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez, who floats naked in front of Zemeckis' calm camera), downing the remains of any open bottles, snorting cocaine, and then scurrying to a flight he has to pilot that morning. It's a shocking introduction to this character, playing against Washington's characteristically composed, morally firm screen persona, and the film feels the repercussions of Whip's hastiness on its ensuing 90 minutes.
What's interesting, and a thorny decision by both Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, is that the subsequent plane crash results not from Whip's questionable physical state – he exhibits remarkable grace under pressure despite his condition, and the film makes brazenly clear that Whip's the only guy who could have avoided a potentially tragic massacre and orchestrated a far less fatal open-field slide – but from an unpredictable malfunction with the aircraft. Laying the blame directly on Whip's alcoholism would have been grounds for safe and easy moralizing, but by introducing an outside variable Flight both erects the dichotomy of fate and chance that is one of Zemeckis' key concerns and forces Whip's self-analysis to come about on internal rather than external terms. After the crash, a generous attorney named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) goes to work on brushing under the rug reports of Whip's incriminating blood work, so the threat of imprisonment still looms over his future, but the fundamental conflict of Flight is nonetheless firmly within his psyche: the question of whether or not he will admit to his alcoholism, stop living a life entrenched in lies, and ultimately clear his conscience and secure his identity.
This is some heavy existential stuff, typical of the mysticism that has always been on the fringes of Zemeckis' body of work. In itself, Flight's preoccupation with philosophical issues of the self, the divine, and the relationship between the two is commendable at a Hollywood level. Unfortunately, Zemeckis has the tendency – already especially evident in the cerebral sci-fi Contact – to overplay the Big Ideas inherent in his material, feeling the need to layer on directorial cues when rich subtexts are already self-evident in the action. For instance, when Whip's foil, the heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), is first introduced, we hear Red Hot Chili Peppers' downer hit "Under the Bridge" on a radio nearby, a tune about loneliness and isolation that speaks all-too-neatly to both Whip and Nicole's juncture in life (Whip has been abandoned by his wife and son, and Nicole is mistreated by a rotten landlord). Later, Hugh takes Whip to the crash site for a glance at the wreckage, which – by virtue of conveniently being on the grounds of a monastery – doubles as an opportunity for Zemeckis to spell out his religious belief. Yet while the result of the crash (only 6 casualties rather than a whole plane's worth) is cited as an "act of God" on multiple occasions, the same phrase is used to apply to the rare form of cancer suffered by a young man Whip encounters when hospitalized after the accident, as well as the unexpected aircraft defects. God, it seems, is capable of hostility as much as benevolence. It's this thematic ambiguity that balances out some of Zemeckis' more heavy-handed gestures.
Flight, however, despite its theological core, thankfully does not lay all responsibility for human affairs on God: though the divine may have a part in major existential happenings, it cannot continue to play a role in individual lives. Put simply, at a certain point a man must take what he’s given and decide his own fate. This is where Flight gets interesting, and where Washington takes center stage. The middle portion of the film is dedicated to charting Whip's on-and-off relationship with alcohol, his interior battle with addiction after miraculously surviving a traumatic event. On either side of him is Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Harling Mays (John Goodman), two longtime friends placed, fairly schematically, on opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is a supportive colleague and the latter is a caricatured druggie who conspicuously guzzles Budweisers while driving (the film's attitude towards Harling is one of its muddiest points; his thoroughly irresponsible behavior is always supported by blaring musical accompaniments and rockstar tracking shots, shifting the tone from somber character study to amped-up stoner comedy on a dime). Whip is tugged every which way by these diametric points of reference (perhaps influencing the naming of his character), but ultimately it's the time he spends alone that proves most illuminating. As he hooks up with Nicole and starts living with her in his inherited Georgia farmhouse, the improvement in her trajectory only emphasizes how stagnant and even self-destructive Whip is. At one point, she returns from her new grocery store job late at night to find Whip watching old family videotapes in the living room (assumptions about drug addiction and class are not the only clichés Flight traffics in), a collection of empty bottles surrounding him as his sentences descend into incomprehensibility (Washington is so convincing in this scene that I'd be surprised if he wasn't at least half as drunk on set as his character is onscreen).
At a certain point, it seems as if every one of Flight's strengths (its quiet introspection, its largely effective supporting ensemble, the stock it puts in the power of an individual) is also hampered by a weakness (the sudden burst of a gaudy genre trope, the introduction of a poorly written character, the use of religion or class as an explanatory umbrella for narrative action), but fortunately nothing ever does pierce the surface of Washington's beautifully realized character. Everything here has been integrated to poignant effect: the insecure covering of his lower lip, the knee-jerk use of mouth spray to combat the stench of alcohol, the donning of dark sunglasses to ineffectively conceal intoxication or a high (occurring at two pivotal points in the film: before the flight and before the legal hearing that will decide his fate), and the frequent resorting to an uninflected one-word answer to avoid facing the truth. These telling details accumulate into one of the most honest, genuinely moving studies of addiction Hollywood has ever produced, something that not even the film's sentimental coda – in which Whip directly reports of his failings so that the film's moral compass is clear-cut – can undo.