Robert Zemeckis seems to have taken my critiques of his lifeless and plastic motion-capture movies a little too seriously. For his first live-action film in twelve years he has chosen the emotionally overextended drama Flight, which affords Denzel Washington the opportunity to embody every alcoholism cliché on record, except for actually beating his family. He cries, he denies, he manipulates, he capitulates. He’d fit in perfectly with an after school special if he wasn’t a very talented actor and headlining a movie with spectacular production values.
The worst part of Flight is that I get the impression the film wants to be better than this. The central conceit is such a fascinating one: Washington plays “Whip” Whitaker, an alcoholic, drug-addicted airline pilot whose jet experiences technical failure and should, if every test performed after the fact is any indication, have crashed and killed everyone on board. The twist is that, perhaps because of his inebriation, Whip is both daring and calm enough to perform a highly unorthodox maneuver that results in only a handful of casualties.
That right there is an interesting set up, and raises a metric ton of questions: would everyone have died if the pilot wasn’t criminally negligent? Would a sober pilot have been able to prevent the disaster entirely? Should the airline admit Whip’s potential culpability, or hide the truth to protect the thousands of jobs at risk because, hey, “No harm, no foul?” The most involving aspects of Flight have little to do with Denzel Washington; it’s far more exciting to use him as an inciting incident to allow everyone else in the film – a superior supporting cast that includes Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Tamara Tunie – the opportunity to express complex emotions and opinions about an subject that is anything but cut and dry.
So it’s extremely frustrating that Flight’s screenplay exerts most of its energy on Washington’s ham-fisted personal problems, reducing the initial, fascinating disaster to an overproduced “rock bottom” moment for a man who apparently just needs to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s a waste of a perfectly good set up, like sending aliens to invade an entire planet just to teach Taylor Kitsch a lesson about personal responsibility. So many fascinating ethical questions are raised in Flight that it’s ultimately dissatisfying, and even a little pathetic, that they all boil down to the kind of judgmental moralizing you’d find in “a very special episode” of a 1980’s sitcom. Being an alcoholic is bad, Alcoholics Anonymous is good. The more you know…
They spent $31 million on this message, and frankly, it’s annoying. There’s a much better movie in here, but every time it rears its head and allows Cheadle, Greenwood or practically anyone else to talk about it, John Gatins’ screenplay has to counter that with a simplistic tale about a single individual with an old-fashioned substance abuse problem. Washington does his best to elevate the material, and Zemeckis shoots the hell out of it, but in the end, Flight crashes and burns. The film goes out of its way to ask intriguing questions, and then goes out of its way to answer them in a pat, cloying manner that makes you wonder why they bothered bringing it up in the first place. That doesn’t fly with me. They should have stowed it.