By Vincent Abbatecola
After having his previous three films consist of motion-capture animation, Zemeckis reverts back to live-action storytelling for the first time since he directed “Cast Away” back in 2000. In his truly character-driven film, “Flight,” he dives into the depths of Whitaker’s inner turmoil caused by alcoholism, and places him under the strictest of microscopes. Whitaker’s long road to sobriety is mined with constant alcoholic temptation, and the audience walks this road with him as the desire to reach the root of his problem grows to an absolute need and want for him to get better.
In a routine day, Whitaker arrives at the airport for his flight. After taking off and hitting some turbulence during a storm, the flight starts to go smoothly, and Captain Whitaker sneaks two small bottles of liquor into his orange juice. Awhile later, the plane begins to dive out of the sky.
By nothing short of a miracle, Whitaker manages to land the plane in a field, and is labeled a national hero. However, when investigations begin on what caused the crash, it is found in Whitaker’s medical tests that he had alcohol in his system at the time of the accident. It is then questioned if the cause of the crash was purely a technical malfunction, or if his inebriation played a part in it as well. In the meantime Whitaker tries to dodge the media as he begins his efforts to rid himself of alcohol dependency.
Denzel Washington’s character is a dark and troubled version of real-life hero Chesley Sullenberger, and his performance is mesmerizing. That adjective fits the occasion because whenever there are any alcoholic beverages in the same shot with Whitaker, the audience watches him with unwavering eyes to see if he will succumb to his addiction or resist the biting urge to drink.
The audience sees the sense of detachment he feels from being separated from his family as Whitaker watches home videos of him with his father and son. But, his refusal to stop drinking is keeping him back from what used to be a good life. When he resorts to the booze, the viewer becomes infuriated with Denzel’s character because his actions severely damage his familial and romantic relations, and threatens the safety of others; but, that’s how the viewer can tell that he cares about Whitaker. The viewer wants him to get better as Denzel’s character expresses the pain of being trapped by his addiction.
Kelly Reilly gives a breakout performance as an ex-junkie named Nicole. In the beginning she has needs to get her fix. But, she still retains some degree of dignity as to what she will not do for drugs, refusing to give in to the crude demands of her supplier. And, behind her damaged appearance is someone who strives to make a better living for herself.
Reilly gives her character a stunning transformation from a drug addict to a responsible woman who begins to get her life back on track with the help of Whitaker. And she, in turn, tries to help him the best she can. The magic of her performance is that she is first seen as someone whom the viewer would least suspect would assist in a person kicking a drug habit, and yet, she becomes that individual who is Whitaker’s only true friend in the film.
The screenplay by John Gatins doesn’t bring in the actual hearing until the final 20 minutes of the movie. Until then the film is rather a magnificently detailed analysis of Denzel’s character, exploring the reasons as to why he struggles with alcohol abuse. The screenplay first presents the film with two story lines with different central characters, one with Whitaker and the other focusing on Nicole.
But, they are thematically similar. They both suffer from addictions and need help. Their relationship is carefully developed as Whitaker takes in Nicole after she gets evicted from her apartment, and as Nicole tries to help Whitaker recover from his alcoholism. As soon as the movie reaches the climactic hearing and a surprising revelation takes place, it’s a time for the audience to make one last plea for Whitaker to do what’s right.
Before “Flight,” Zemeckis had a 12-year-hiatus from live-action filmmaking after he directed “Cast Away,” which was carried by Tom Hanks’ performance. With Zemeckis’ latest movie, it’s clear that he still has the ability to handle a movie that is purely character driven.
The director makes Whitaker’s character into someone the audience can feel strongly for, and doesn’t turn Whitaker into the clichéd booze hound that is normally seen in film; he is a respected pilot and supposed hero who has hit a rough patch with his alcohol abuse. As seen in Zemeckis’ filmography, he does have much experience with visual effects in his movies, and gives audiences a special effects treat with the emergency-landing sequence.
That sequence, however, means something more, and represents the entire movie. It is not just one of the film’s most memorable scenes, but it also has a symbolic use. It represents Whitaker’s life making its own emergency landing so he can save himself and improve the quality of his life.
With the combined efforts of the performances, screenplay and direction, “Flight” earns its wings.
Final grade: A