Dir. Robert Zemeckis
(2012, R, 138 minutes)

Flight opens with outstanding scenes it ultimately doesn’t live up to. It begins with Denzel Washington as airline pilot Whip Whitaker, waking up in a hotel room drinking and snorting cocaine with a naked flight attendant, and already we can tell this is not the kind of movie we’d expect from Washington or its director, Robert Zemeckis. The following scene, showing a terrifying plane crash, is extraordinary: paced, edited, and acted with the utmost tension, gradually building to mortal terror, and after it was over I thought, this just might turn out to be a great film.

Subsequent scenes never match it. This turns out to be a drama more about alcoholism than about a plane crash, which in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it feels long at 138 minutes, consisting largely of scenes of Whip drinking and self-justifying, rinse and repeat. Some of these scenes, in particular those involving John Goodman as an enabling dealer and friend, are played for laughs when they are quite unfunny, particularly a late scene that has the feel of miscalculated slapstick.

Another movie very recently approached alcoholism with a degree of humor and handled it with greater success: Smashed. It was dramatically more satisfying as well, dealing with addiction in a small, intimate scale as opposed to the more grandiose treatment in Flight.

Zemeckis shoots bottles of alcohol with extreme intensity, making sure our eyes remind our brains that, oh yes, Whip is an alcoholic. The effect is often unnecessary, like underlining text already written in caps. Case in point: in one scene Zemeckis holds a stationary shot of a bottle from a minibar, and it’s a good, tense shot until a hand swoops in to grab it in slow-motion. It’s the slow-motion that kills it. It’s one dramatic flourish too far.

There is a fallen-woman subplot that provides Washington with a love interest. Nicole is addicted to drugs and alcohol, overdoses, and meets Washington in the hospital shortly after his plane crash. She’s played by Kelly Reilly, who is never really a match for Washington during their scenes together, both in terms of dramatic presence and romantic chemistry.

There is one aspect of this film that is of greater interest, however. It is the fact that Whip is both a hero and a drunk. His condition endangered lives aboard that plane, but his actions saved them. It is this fact that both keeps him stubbornly drinking and gives the story an added dimension. But it’s not quite enough to compensate for the film’s repetitiveness. The back-and-forth between inebriation, regret, and relapse may be an accurate reflection of the life of an alcoholic, but in this case it doesn’t produce a satisfying dramatic arc.

Washington is good, however, turning around his usual heroic persona into something darker and bitterer, though not at the scenery-chewing scale of, say, Training Day. He plays Whip as a man with a lot of charm, and it’s not hard to imagine him getting by on it for longer than most could. But even Whip’s charm has a shelf life, and his time’s about up.

 

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