Many films suffer from under-exposure. People don't hear about or have the opportunity to see a great film filled with great performances because the film is produced and released by a small company and it never reaches movie theaters in the suburbs. When it reaches DVD and Streaming, people have another opportunity, but a theatrical release is the main driving force behind a DVD release, so it may be ignored here as well.
Robert Zemeckis' new film "Flight" suffers from just the opposite. From the moment people started to see it, at festivals and screenings, praise and hype has been heaped on the film and Denzel Washington's performance. All of this praise has amped up our expectations to a place it would be difficult to meet. And it didn’t meet my expectations.
Zemckis has spent the last few years making motion-capture computer animated films. He uses this technology to film actors wearing specially designed suits as they act out their roles. Then, his technicians add a layer of computer animation to place these characters in rich and impressive landscapes. This technology allows Zemeckis to put his characters in created landscapes it would be too costly and prohibitive to make otherwise.
The experiment has yielded very good ("A Christmas Carol"), good ("Monster House"), strange ("The Polar Express") and abysmal results ("Beowulf"). But the experiment seems strangest of all because Zemeckis, a director made famous by his fantasy and action films, films memorable because of the humanity of the actors, became so enthralled with technology that ultimately takes away that layer of humanity.
In "Flight", Zemeckis returns to a story very much grounded (har har!) in reality. This may be one of the reasons the film is receiving so much praise; people are happy to see humans in a Zemeckis' film again. No more soulless, blank-eyed zombies trying to entice children onto a train destined for a far away land.
The other reason "Flight" is receiving so much praise is Washington's performance. It is pretty remarkable and unlike anything he has done before. Raw, vulnerable, emotional, very conflicted. On the outside, he appears to be every bit the archetype Washington hero. But as we watch the performance unfold, Washington brings so many new layers to the role, giving us a three-dimensional portrait of Whip Whitaker, a very troubled pilot working for a small airline.
From the opening frames, you realize Washington is going for something different, very different from what we have seen before. The actor has stated in interviews that he avoids scenes of intimacy because he doesn't want to make his wife uncomfortable. Because of this, we rarely if ever see him kiss his on-screen love interest. In "Flight", all of these notions are thrown out the window.
Whip Whitaker is an addict. He shows up hung over for his quick flight from Orlando to Atlanta. After checking the exterior, in torrential rain, he boards and gets every one ready for take-off. The flight immediately runs into very bad turbulence, but he and his co-pilot lead the plane out of the bad weather. About a half hour later, the plane experiences more trouble.
As soon as Whip realizes the plane is in trouble, his senses and faculties kick into razor-sharp focus. All of the previous alcohol and drug-use seem to completely dissipate. He guides the plane to safety, saving most of the passengers and crew from a more fatal crash landing.
All of this happens in the first act. And it is compelling and insanely watchable. Every so often, a film depicts an event so well, your mind remembers it every time the subject is broached. In "Flight", the turbulent landing of the jet is such an event. You won't find this film playing on any commercial flight. Nor should you watch it while flying on a plane. No good will come from such an act. "The Gray" was the last film I saw with such an intense, realistically depicted plane crash. "The Impossible", out in December, features a harrowing depiction of the tsunami that hit Thailand a few years ago.
But once act 2 begins, "Flight" veers off course. It really starts to do this much earlier. As we watch Whip starting his day, the narrative suddenly, inexplicably shifts to follow Nicole (Kelly Reilly, Mary Watson in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") as she tries to score. Ultimately, Nicole's life intercepts with Whips, but these initial moments are jarring because they pull us out of and distract us from Whip's more interesting story. Worse, Nicole's story has been done and seen millions of times. And many of these have been much more convincing. Just about every time Nicole enters the story, the film loses focus.
As Whip recovers in the hospital, people begin to show up. Everyone is ready to acknowledge he is a hero, but there is also an undercurrent of sentiment leading people to begin questioning his sobriety. Enter Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), the Pilot's Union President, and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the lawyer they hire to represent Whip. The entire second act is about Whip trying to fight his addiction; he retreats to his childhood home and camps out, trying to evade reporters. He tries valiantly to stay sober, but the urge proves too great.
Ultimately the film mars Washington's performance by becoming too preachy. He seems to be doing well; he throws all the alcohol away, he attends AA, he meets various survivors and their families, all-eager to heap gratitude on Whip. But all of this only serves to drive Whip closer and closer to the bottle of the drugs as he falls back on his old, self-destructive habits.
Washington's performance is very good and very realistic. He is clearly going to some dark places to reveal parts of Whip's character. But the story doesn't show us anything new or take Whip to anyplace we haven't seen before. Charlie and Hugh, both charged with helping Whip avoid any criminal charges, pop up every few minutes to explain the situation and warn Whip about the consequences of his behavior. Ultimately, they are warning us, preaching to us about the consequences. It makes the progression of Whip's problems seem a little too 'movie-of-the-week'. At one point, Whip attends an AA meeting, but leaves early because it isn’t for him, he doesn’t need it, and he can handle his addiction. Really? We have seen this so many times before, in television shows, television movies, feature films, etc. I understand that most addicts will probably go through this type of experience, but it doesn’t mean we have to watch every addict on screen go through the same thing. Unless they experience something new related to it.
John Goodman appears as Harling Mays, Whip's dealer. His performance is another scene-stealer and worthy of praise.
Melissa Leo pops up in the final moments as a NTSB Investigator. Her role is too brief and one-note to add anything special.
Written By John Gatins ("Real Steel", "Coach Carter"), the story was inspired by his own travels through addiction. But he doesn't really offer anything new because we've seen these highs and lows before. And his background writing Hollywood-style inspirational movies lead us to a similar extremely conventional, and predictable, Hollywood-like ending in "Flight" that just seems false.
Zemeckis has assembled all of the elements of a fantastic, intense nail-biter. But he wimps out; he doesn’t seem to have the conviction to show us a true depiction of a man's harrowing journey through addiction. He seems to shy away from painting a truly dark, uncompromising vision, something that would be truly memorable.