"Flight" is exciting — terrific, really — because in addition to the sophisticated storytelling techniques by which it keeps us hooked, it doesn't drag audience sympathies around by the nose, telling us what to think or how to judge the reckless, charismatic protagonist played by Denzel Washington.
Robert Zemeckis, the filmmaker, has a lot in common with Whip Whitaker, the veteran commercial airline pilot Washington plays with exquisite authority (authority under duress, which is more interesting than cardboard heroics). Like the protagonist, Zemeckis is a showoff, brash and highly skilled. He's a director fascinated by what the medium's digital effects possibilities allow him to depict on screen.
Building on a career begun in the pre-digital days of "Back to the Future," Zemeckis more recently focused his energies on a trio of slightly eerie "halfway" movies, reliant on motion-capture animation, halfway between cartoony and realistic: "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and the Jim Carrey "Christmas Carol."
While I realize he has always made different sorts of pictures, with varying degrees of flash, it's gratifying to find Zemeckis leaving behind the uncanny valley for a couple of hours and showing what he can do with a script that scrambles, brilliantly, the audience's feelings toward a brave and valiant savior with a few things to hide.
Little on the resume of screenwriter John Gatins ("Real Steel") would've suggested a project of this shrewdness. The trailers for "Flight" suggest "The High and the Mighty" crossed with all four "Airport" disaster movies. But it's really not that sort of film. Here, thanks largely to one of Washington's most intricate portraits, the crises have more to do with morals and ethics (without getting hectoring about it) than with mechanical failure and uncontrolled nose dives at 21,000 feet.
It begins as an ordinary day for Whitaker. He's in Orlando, a few hours away from a routine morning flight back to Atlanta. He and his flight attendant lover (Nadine Velazquez) have been drinking and snorting lines of cocaine. By phone Whitaker speaks briefly to his ex-wife, arguing about finances, their teenage son and other sore points ("You wanted him to go to private school, not me"). The weather isn't good. In the cockpit, Whitaker gets through some above-average turbulence well enough. Then Zemeckis puts the audience through just enough hell to give "Flight" one hell of an opening — a thrill, but not a cheap or needlessly extravagant one.
After the crash landing, only a handful of the plane's passenger and crew end up dead and Whitaker, banged up but alive, becomes a hero. But he knows he was legally drunk when it all happened, to say nothing of the cocaine in his system. He learns that other people know this too, though the news has yet to go public. Whitaker's old friend and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) is around for comfort and for counsel, as is a smooth, cagey lawyer (Don Cheadle, excellent) confident he can keep Whitaker out of jail for what he has done. Kelly Reilly, the supple English stage and screen actress, plays her first American character on film, a vulnerable fellow addict Whitaker meets early on in the hospital. Their relationship develops in unexpected ways, but almost everything that works in "Flight" is unpredictable. (The last 15 minutes, less so, and a touch soft, but I felt the movie earned the ending it chose.)
A younger, less secure Zemeckis — circa 1990, say — might've pumped up the dramatics to the breaking point. Thankfully, the older Zemeckis did not, and in fact he lets some leisurely dialogue sequences in the hospital, and out at Whitaker's late father's farm, establish more than one mood, more than one facet of Whitaker's dilemma. John Goodman tears up two juicy scenes as Whitaker's dealer and devil/angel confidant, and while we didn't need the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For the Devil" as a music cue (again, with that song), well ... there it is. As Whitaker and his increasingly concerned allies face an imminent National Transportation Safety Board hearing regarding the crash, and Whitaker's role in it all, "Flight" dares you to root for the man in the middle, even as you root for his reckoning.
Time has revealed Zemeckis to be something of a classicist despite his obsession with cinematic technology. Washington, whose face in "Flight" becomes a series of bargains and lies Whitaker tells himself and the outside world, interacts wonderfully with his fellow actors, often with two and three performers sharing the frame for a satisfying length of time. So few directors care about that sort of thing anymore; so few care about choreographing, subtly or showily, the interaction between the camera and the actors without resorting to cutting. (Steven Spielberg remains vitally interested in this vanishing aspect of the craft as well; see the forthcoming and very fine "Lincoln" for proof.) "Flight" is Washington's show, and he's marvelous in it. But Zemeckis and his team put everything in place so that Washington could run with it, with unnervingly good results.
'Flight' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence)
Running time: 2:18