Robert Zemeckis is responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made; movies that had heavy influence on me as a person. Films like the Back to the Future series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, What Lies Beneath and Cast Away are all some of my favoritest. Then around 2004 he discovered motion capture and animation and ever since then only worked on cartoons like The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. His animated stuff was good but it was a real disapointment to think he had become addicted to it and wouldn't kick it to return to the world of live action. It's fitting that Flight is a movie about addiction because it appears he's back but a little rusty.
Flight, starring Denzel Washington, has one of the most dramatic first acts I've seen in a while. The first half hour shows a commercial pilot engaged in sex, drugs and alcohol fighting on the phone with his ex-wife all in the first few minutes. It's clear from the beginning that Washington's character is a disaster but we're not done yet because we're treated to another disaster right after that when the plane he's flying (after getting drunk and high) malfunctions. The plane crashing isn't his fault and dispite being stoned, saves almost everyone on board in an amazing show of skill. Is he a hero or monster? That is the motivating plot for Flight but what it's actually about it far darker and real.
Movies about addiction are often depressing and hard to watch. Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream are both Oscar-winning and excellent but you can really only watch them once or twice before feeling like you want to kill yourself. Flight is a little different. Washington's character is an addict but he's good at it. He is in denial of how bad it is, thinks he can control it and spins lies like a pro. This is a far more realistic portrayal of someone with addiction and Washington is absolutely stunning. It's very hard to play someone loaded. Far too often you see those actors turn it into farce or go too far. Washington plays someone who is drunk and/or high with so much realism it's hard to watch. His mood swings are disturbing and the control he has over his performace is Oscar-worthy.
As good of a director as Zemeckis is, this film doesn't feel up to his standards though. There are large chunks that are really boring and don't seem to go anywhere. A story arc involving a junkie, played by the lovely Kelly Reilly (the Sherlock Holmes movies), that Washington gets into a relationship with is pointless and gets the whole film off track. Shocking that someone as skilled as Zemeckis would make such mistakes. The one thing he did do that was absolutely incredible was the plane crash scene. From the time things start to go badly, the scene lasts about 14 minutes and it feels like an hour. It's one of the scariest dipictions of a plane crash ever shown on film and it made me tear up with empathy for the people on board. That scene and Washington are the crowning achievements of the movie.
Perhaps one of the reasons it's hard to enjoy Flight is because addicts are such unlikable people. Never once do you like Washinton. From the very beginning he's arrogant and dickish and by the time we're all sucked down into his abyss we hate him. It all builds to a scene at the end that's straight out of Arthur Miller's The Crucible where we have redemption but that's two and a half hours later. If you're not exhausted by then, you're a little bored. Even if you're paying attention to the secondary performances of John Goodman or Don Cheadle (Iron Man 2, Oceans 11) or the clever undertones of religion's play on fate, you're still not super entertained. I hope that this doesn't make Zemeckis have a relapse and go back to his addiction with cartoons. We missed you Rob and want you to stick around making movies for adults again. This is your intervention. Flight (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B-