Flight (***)

After what most of us would agree was too long a period spent experimenting with motion capture technology in a series of animated projects, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has made his return to live action filmmaking with ‘Flight’, a very entertaining star vehicle for Denzel Washington that could wind up getting an Oscar nomination or two. The lead performance by Washington is the easiest aspect of film to reward, but there could be others as well. Zemeckis has made a darker character study than you’d expect, even if this is a redemption tale in the end. He’s got terrific acting on display from his cast besides Washington, with John Goodman especially stealing his scenes. The screenplay by John Gatins isn’t perfect, but it’s got more going for it than against it. When I first saw it as the Closing Night Film at the New York Film Festival, I liked but didn’t love it. Now, with the impending release on Friday, I’ve thought more about it and my thumb is a bit higher up than before. It’s not quite among the very best films of the year, but it’s in the upper echelon and very entertaining. The movie is not without its flaws or bumps in the road/sky, but overall there’s a lot to like. We can easily welcome Zemeckis back to the land of the living, as it were. He hasn’t missed a step!

When we first meet airline pilot Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington), he’s first waking up from a pretty wild night of hotel room debauchery with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). Alcohol, cocaine, sex, you name it…Whip’s been doing it, and now he’s about to pilot a plane on an early morning flight from Orlando to Atlanta. We gather that he’s done this many times before, especially in the casual way he deals with his co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty). He’s on autopilot even more than the plane, making more of an effort to have a nap and a screwdriver than anything else. We can clearly see that he’s skilled though, and that comes into play shortly after takeoff when there’s a ton of turbulence. He makes the decision to get through it and ensure a smooth ride to the passengers, leading to a cheer, but it’s short-lived as the plane begins to fail and go down. Whip is able to perform an impossible maneuver and land the plane, saving all but 6 of the 102 souls on board. He’s initially hailed as a hero, but as he’s informed in the hospital by his union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), there’s going to be an investigation. That’s not good for him, as he was drunk and high, but that’s not enough to kick the habits for Whip, who’s clearly a highly functioning addict. While recovering he’s visited by his dealer/friend Harling Mays (Goodman) and also meets a fellow addict/kindred spirit in Nicole (Kelly Reilly). He connects with her, but at the same time he’s also got to contend with the demons and the legal troubles that slowly are threatening to swallow him whole. The movie is all about Whip’s arc, and it does a good job of following through on that.

There’s a lot of good acting in the movie, but you can’t start anywhere other than with Denzel Washington. Easily one of his 5 best performances to date, he takes an already complex character and adds even more layers to him. Whip is a troubled man and Washington never tries to gloss that over. It’s a risky role and his risk in taking it pays off in a big way. I think Denzel is very likely going to receive a Best Actor nomination for his work here. He’s great and the best part of the movie, but he’s not the only actor turning in excellent work. John Goodman only has a few scenes to work with, but he steals them all. Goodman may never have a better shot at a nomination than this year with the combination of this and ‘Argo’, so I think voters could look to this performance as enough evidence to either cite him here or use it to push his work in Ben Affleck’s flick over the top. He’s a huge presence and hilarious. Kelly Reilly is very good as well, though I wish the second half of the movie had used her character better than it did. She works to stay memorable, but she pales in comparison to Washington and Goodman. Don Cheadle is solid as the attorney working to keep Whip out of jail, but he’s not in the same league as the other cast members, mostly due to the character he’s playing. Cheadle certainly isn’t bad though, so don’t think that. The aforementioned Brian Geraghty, Bruce Greenwood, and Nadine Velazquez are good in their small parts, while James Badge Dale and Melissa Leo have one strong scene each to work with…his more towards the beginning/middle and hers at the end. They both impressed, though Dale slightly more so than Leo. The rest of the cast includes Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, and Tamara Tunie, but this is Washington’s show.

By and large, Robert Zemeckis does very good work here behind the camera. He handles the plane crash sequence perfectly and keeps the pace of the film moving pretty well. At times he struggles with the tone somewhat, but part of that is due to John Gatins’ screenplay, which sometimes can’t figure out how serious it wants things to be. Some of the characters, which admittedly are strong, can seem from out of another movie at times, and that bugged me briefly. Zemeckis could have stood to have trimmed about 10 minutes or so from the nearly 2 hour and 20 minute running time, but that’s not a huge complaint and doesn’t really affect one’s enjoyment of the flick. He may have missed with a few small things, but he hits on almost all of the big ones, including getting the most out of his actors. The same could be said for Gatins, who leaves you with a good impression overall of his work. They way they decide to end the movie may not satisfy everyone, but I think it was the right choice. I don’t think either will wind up with Oscar nominations, as that’s more likely the territory of Washington and possibly Goodman, but they’re certainly in the race as of now.

‘Flight’ opens this weekend, and while it’ll never be a movie seen on airlines or those with a fear of plane crashes, it’s definitely an Oscar contender and a film worth seeing in the theater. It’s a step below a great picture, but in the end it’s a very good one. I wouldn’t bet on a Best Picture nomination, but stranger things have certainly happened and there will be at least a nomination or two in this film’s future. Denzel Washington alone should be able to sell you on this, but Robert Zemeckis returning to live action probably seals the deal otherwise. Whatever the reason, this is a film I recommend without reservations and hope that you all check out. The trailers are suggesting one particular type of movie, but what you’re going to see is a bit different than that, and a whole lot better too.

Read the Editor Review of Flight from the New York Film Festival!

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