Saturday, December 15, 2012
Flight is an excellent performance in search of a better movie. I had read descriptions of Denzel Washington’s walk in other reviews, but from the moment his Whip Whitaker swaggers out of a hotel room after a night of drugs, drink, and sex with a stewardess (Nadine Velazquez) I knew I was in good hands. Whip’s life is a mess, he’s divorced and in the thrall of his addictions, but that’s nothing compares to what happens to him when a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta goes bad. The airborne sequence in Flight is a piece of genuinely harrowing bravura filmmaking, and we can all be glad that director Robert Zemeckis decide not to shoot this movie with that weird animation technique from The Polar Express. The simple image of a terrified flight attendant reacting as the plane turns upside down suggests many horrors, and Zemeckis (working from a script by John Gatins) makes the moments after the crash a blur of image and sensation. It is the high point of the movie.
After the crash Flight becomes a movie about a man running into a wall. It’s obvious from the moment Whip pours vodka into his in-flight orange juice that there’s a problem, but Zemeckis and Gatins need to keep reminding us. There’s a character Whip meets after the crash, an addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who becomes a part of his life for no other reason than to give him someone to talk to. Nicole is a mirror, a character who exists only to reflect Whip’s behavior, and she disappears from the movie when her purpose is used up. Whip keeps stumbling and trying to right himself as the crash investigation proceeds, there are a jumble of procedural details involving a lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a union rep (Bruce Greenwood, doing one of a number of inauthentic Southern accents) who are working to clear Whip’s name. Perhaps it’s honest that it takes so long for Whip to face himself but it never feels like there’s more than one way that Flight can end. The trials come on cue, most egregiously an unlocked door that gives Whip access to alcohol at the moment he needs it the least, and the final choice between responsibility and dishonor can be seen coming from pretty far down the road.
What are we left with? Washington is marvelously specific about levels of intoxication, from morning after bleariness to the incoherence of an evening spent next to a whiskey bottle, and the way he snaps to another level after some help from his supplier (John Goodman, in a part not worthy of him) will chill anyone who has spent time around But addiction. But there are too many bum scenes, especially a hospital visit between Whip and his injured copilot (Brian Geraghty). Whip wants to make sure the copilot won’t testify against him, but the scene is just another turn of the wheel that’s moving Whip to where the movie wants him to go. The copilot turns out to be a Christian with a wife who only says “Praise Jesus”, and for no particular reason he enables Whip’s behavior for a little while longer. Flight is a movie jury-rigged to support a great performance and Denzel Washington more than carries the weight, but he’s acting in a vacuum because no one else has room to breathe.