Movie Review: Flight- A Slightly Unfocused but Relatively Strong Return to Live-Action Drama for Robert Zemeckis

In a recent interview with acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis had a glib and sarcastic complaint that people felt he hadn’t made a movie in over 10 years. And for many this complaint does have truth to it because during this long decade he has sort of failed to capture our attention and our memory as he had done with previous great films including the Back to the Future Trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Forrest Gump. Instead we were offered stale motion captured films that lacked the depth, the character, and the entertainment value that we expected from Zemeckis, and included the rather dim adaptation of Beowulf, the ruining of a children’s classic with Polar Express, and the demonstrably bad Mars Needs Moms. Although he hasn’t been flawless in his career with straight live-action drama (think Contact or What Lies Beneath) it’s easy to forgive such an accomplished individual for his past mistakes.

Which then leads us to today with Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action drama with a character study entitled Flight that centers on an arrogant, personally flawed, and deeply troubled airline pilot (played by Denzel Washington) who gets caught in an investigation on what occurred after he had miraculously saved a malfunctioned plane from crashing. The script is written by actor/writer John Gatins who has previously written some questionable material, such as last year’s Real Steel and the lackluster Keanu Reeves baseball drama Hardball. And this script is also not without its faults because it has some odd structural choices and perhaps some unnecessary dramatic ploys that distract from the central plot and character (such as the entire back story of drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) whose influence in the story seems a tad forced). Overall it’s an overly long, slightly predictable, and distracted character study that could have used a little more subjectivity and a trimming down of the extra unnecessary drama interruptions. But despite its unfocused or predictable parts Flight is a drama that is rather captivating and that’s all thanks to the graceful, poignant, and deep performance from Denzel Washington.

Denzel does an incredible job portraying the self-deception, the pride, and the utter breakdown of someone who is completely dependent on a source to function in his daily life. Because the character actually lands the plane despite his alcohol and drug abuse that very morning (not a spoiler, first scene of the movie and it’s in the preview) his obvious self-realization is prolonged and uses the relative success as an excuse or a crutch. As with all addicts he has his critics, which include Nicole who understands addiction, but also has his enablers such as his drug dealer and friend Harling Mays (John Goodman). In every scene that Denzel inhabits he takes full control to the point where he becomes the focal point every time even when he isn’t present in the room but can be seen outside the glass walls. It isn’t as experimental or as deeply reflective as Michael Fassbender’s take on sexual addiction last year in Shame but it certainly is a highlighted performance from the more conventional dramas to focus on the trouble of addiction. If Leaving Las Vegas was able to win Nicholas Cage an Academy Award you can be sure Denzel will be one of the top contenders for this year’s prize.

Zemeckis’ direction isn’t as fine-tuned as it has been for the last decade and it does show throughout the film that he possesses a sort of typical or uninventive directing technique. He is a full on conventional storyteller but as conventional filmmaking goes Robert Zemeckis proves again that he can capture essential dramatic moments with the help of his long time cinematographer Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, Source Code). One scene that is actually captured with surprising perfection is the opening introduction of pilot Whip Whitaker and is done so with a non-edited slow moving shot that encapsulates Denzel’s character in a few short uninterrupted moments. Also the plane crash is extremely well shot with tight, slightly shaky frames that build tension while also giving us the character’s point by point problem solving decisions that are risky, questionable, and courageous. It should be said that while Flight isn’t even in Robert Zemeckis’ best five films it certainly is a promising return to live-action drama that is far superior to Cast Away or Contact.

Movies are always a medium that doesn’t really demand our forgiveness of disbelief but actually requires it. Even the most serious of dramas have flaws of logic or discrepancies in actuality and that is partially the case for Flight, which features a plane landing after being inverted in mid-flight at an incredibly low altitude. But these minor complaints shouldn’t distract us from the true intention that is on the screen and that was to tell the story of an individual who is able to make excuses for his addiction but needs to see its controlling effects. Denzel Washington performs gracefully as the lead and basically carries the film on his shoulders despite the longevity and unfocused nature of the script. While Zemeckis could have put his character under the magnifying glass in order to obtain a true subjective character revision this just isn’t his traditional style. Zemeckis is one of the old school filmmakers who thrives on the conventional, either with stories he chooses or the way he shoots them, but it’s undeniable that he can do it well.

Grade: B-

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