Robert Zemeckis is a recovering alcoholic. He is also a born-again Christian. These are the two facts I kept obsessing over for the entire run-time of his new film, Flight, about an alcoholic pilot who is thrust into the public eye after brilliantly preventing a catastrophic plane crash.
And, in the back of my mind, I wondered how Chuck Noland’s life could have been different had Whip Whittaker been working for Fed-Ex all those years ago.
It is curious that the first live-action film Zemeckis has made in over ten years would be another film centered predominantly on the aftermath of a plane’s sudden and shocking descent from the sky. In fact, Flight and Cast Away have even more in common than exhilarating, perfectly-shot sequences centering on an airline disaster. They’re both intimate character studies about men pre-occupied with themselves, who are forced to challenge and question their own narcissism by way of loneliness. Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland faces his egotism by being left alone on a Pacific island without any sense of time or purpose, and Denzel Washington’s Whip Whittaker faces an opposite, but equally effective trial by being left alone in a sea of voices, each one telling him that his lies are no longer working.
Whip is an alcoholic, a drug addict, a womanizer, and a brilliant pilot. He’s arrogant about his abilities and uses his power to get what he wants. In a way, he is much more isolated than Chuck Noland. At least Chuck had Wilson. Whip has nobody.
When he boards the doomed airliner after a sleepless, drunken night, Whip has no idea that his life is about to completely fall apart. But we know. We know it’s coming with or without the fatal descent. We know because of the sadness in his eyes. We know because he doesn’t respect the passengers on board, or the co-pilot sitting next to him, or the woman who just wants him to settle down. We know it’s coming because he thinks it never will. And when the plane goes down, we watch in awe as the broken, disturbed Whip Whittaker expertly lands it against impossible odds.
Robert Zemeckis’s return to live-action filmmaking is a thoughtful, messy, and sometimes brilliant character study that wisely chooses to approach alcoholism as a disease, and not a character flaw. Whip is sick, not stupid. He is lonely, not “quirky.” And he is sad, not “brooding.” Denzel Washington has injected what could have been a flat character with a deep, profound sadness and loneliness that few actors can replicate.
We watch Whip abuse his body and those around him with an inexplicable sympathy. There is a man in there. He might be monstrous, but he’s there, and somewhere inside of him is a regret so strong that he can’t face it.
The longtime collaboration between Zemeckis and director of photography Don Burgess shows with the film’s truly awe-inspiring plane-crash sequence, but the real power of their visual style comes in the quiet, lingering close-ups of Whip’s wrinkled and sagging face. Sometimes the shots go on for an eternity, and that is a result of a great wisdom in the filmmaking. The shots are invisible, and that’s rare for a movie of this budget.
As is the pacing. Flight may begin with a loud and chaotic show-stopper of a sequence, but the remaining two hours are quiet and contemplative, only occasionally rising above room temperature. Washington makes Whip’s abrasive personality sympathetic by playing it honestly. We don’t have to like him to sympathize with him. Washington knows this, and that’s what makes him a great actor.
It’s nice to finally see Washington play the central role in a film where he’s not shooting anybody, because I’ve always felt that he is most at home when he plays it real. It makes sense that the Tom-Hanks-loving Zemeckis would choose Washington for the role, as he, like Hanks, is the perfect everyman embodiment. You know somebody like him.
Robert Zemeckis does, anyway. As a recovering alcoholic, there’s no question as to why he chose this material, or as to why he has made his first R-rated film since 1980’s Used Cars. He knows what it’s like to silently suffer. It’s rough. Emotionally raw. It destroys lives. Flight isn’t just an R-rated movie, it’s a hard R. Whip lives a wild life, and Zemeckis does not shy away from it. It’s a bold move considering the film’s already hard-to-market slow-pace and absence of source material, but it pays off in emotional impact. The rise can only be as high as the fall was low, and Whip’s rock-bottom is far lower than I could have predicted.
This is an intense character study that doesn’t shy away from its raw, disturbing subject matter, and that’s something to admire.
The film is also swimming in religious iconography, but it very wisely keeps itself from directly preaching to the audience, which is something I was admittedly afraid of going in. However, the message is certainly there if you look for it, but it’s not the message I was really expecting.
Flight is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking portrait of a broken man trying to find his place in a paradoxical world, but it also suffers from some pacing and tonal issues. John Goodman’s character is particularly problematic, as he seems to exist in an entirely different movie. A funny movie. And his scenes are more distracting than they are relieving.
Ultimately, Flight would have served better as a mini-series or a television drama, as its portrayal of alcoholism is an episodic one that sometimes drags in the cinema, but don’t let that deter you from seeing the film. It’s good, sometimes very good, and at the heart of it is one of the best performances Denzel Washington has ever given.
Too bad he had to give it the same year Lincoln and The Master were released.