Saturday, February 23, 2013

Flight


Flight (2012) Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, John Goodman. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by John Gatins. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, and Laurie MacDonald. Run Time: 136 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Drama.

One more film in time for the Academy Awards. This time the film is Flight and the nominations are for Best Actor, Denzel Washington, and Original Screenplay by John Gatins. But the big surprise for me was that Robert Zemeckis directed it. Perhaps best known on this blog for the Back to the Future films, it has been more than a decade since Zemeckis directed a live-action film. While I was surprised, I was also happy knowing that Zemeckis is making this and not his god-awful idea about remaking YellowSubmarine.

Academy Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker.
With that off my chest, let’s turn back to Flight. The film is basically a character study of William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a drug abusing alcoholic who reports to work drunk and high. As you might guess from the title of the film, Whitaker is a pilot. One day when he reports to work in his usual high state, he has the misfortune of flying a plane that has a catastrophic equipment failure. When the elevator controls on the tail malfunctions, the plane is headed into an uncontrollable dive. To make things worse, the engines burn out and the plane is just a big rock falling to earth.

His co-pilot, a sober Christian named Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), cannot handle the situation. Whitaker, in a stroke of genius, inverts the plane (yes, flying upside down) to stabilize the plane and he manages to land the plane. He loses six souls (yes that’s how they refer to the passengers more than once), including two members of the crew, stewardesses, one of whom, Katerina Márquez (Nadine Velazquez), had spent the night drinking, doing drugs and having sex with Whitaker.

While Whitaker is initially declared a hero, he is a flawed human and it is only a matter of time before he implodes. His sobriety is encouraged by Pilot Union Rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a heroin user whom Whitaker meets while sneaking a cigarette during his hospital stay following the crash. On the other side of the equation is Harling Mays (John Goodman, who else), Whitaker’s friend and drug dealer.

As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, led by Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), continues, Whitaker struggles to stay sober. He resists admitting to having a problem and refuses help, even as Nicole starts AA. And as reckless as he is, Whitaker almost gets away with being drunk while flying. It is not until under cross examination by Block does Whitaker finally break down.

It is for his performance that Washington is nominated and deservedly so. It is a strong and emotional performance as we finally see Whitaker do the right thing. He only comes clean just when one more lie might have saved him. In any other year, his performance would be a stronger contender to win. But this is the year for Lincoln actor, Daniel Day Lewis. In years past, Washington’s performance might have actually carried the day. The Academy is fond of actors who play flawed characters. But it would take a catastrophic voting failure to derail the Day Lewis train. I’m not saying Day Lewis’ Lincoln performance is better than Washington’s Whitaker; just that Lewis seems destined to win. And even if Day Lewis fails to win, Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean in Les Misérables would still probably win before Washington won for this part.

The acting is really strong throughout the movie. Washington, whom I’ve been watching since his days on TV’s St. Elsewhere, is usually very good. Don Cheadle is one of those actors who always gives a good performance whether as a lead or in a supporting role. Despite these two, one of the standout performances in the film belongs to Kelly Reilly. While she has been acting for a number of years, I believe this is the first time I’ve really seen how good she can be. She gives a lot of depth to a supporting role. I’m a little surprised Reilly wasn’t also nominated.

Kelly Reilly as Nicole in "Flight."
Kelly Reilly gives a strong performance as Nicole Maggen.

Finally, I wanted to point out John Goodman, who seems to be in more films than Dwayne Johnson, in a role that was reminiscent of his performance of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Harling is mild-mannered, but quick to temper. And instead of a bowling ball, Harling is carrying cocaine and what other contraband he can in his bag..

Not a bowling ball in Harling's (John Goodman) bag.
As for the screenplay, I’m a little at a loss to explain why this was nominated for best original screenplay. There are parts of it that don’t ring true to me, especially the depiction of Whitaker’s estranged relationship with his wife and son. In what is supposed to be a come full circle ending, Whitaker is visited in prison by his son. But to be honest this seems a little tacked on and could have been excised without impacting the film too much. Their reunion is not the emotional climax of the film either.

There is a Christian overtone running throughout the film. The fact that passengers are referred to as souls may be an aviation passenger industry term, but that along with Act of God being thrown around as an official explanation for the accident and the prayer meeting that breaks out when Whitaker finally visits his co-pilot in the hospital and you’ve got Christian values running as a thread throughout.

As far as production values, the plane trip is very well done, especially when the plane flies upside down (as seen in the ads for the film) and crashes. It is a really good use of special effects without making this a special effects laden film.

There's something you don't see everyday, an airliner flying upside down.

While certainly not the best film of the year, Flight was a film I was pleased to find was better than I expected and one I would recommend to watch.

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