Film Review: Flight
It’s been over a decade since Robert Zemeckis last directed a live-action drama, having spent the last few years making several oddball CGI-animated features. But with the likes of engaging dramas Cast Away and Forrest Gump under his belt, Flight should’ve been where he belonged. Alas, Flight is all promise, with no delivery.
There have been several highly acclaimed films covering similar plots in recent years which spring to mind when watching Flight, such as Crazy Heart and Shame. And what instantly becomes comparable is its structure – or lack, thereof.
The plot follows William ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Denzel Washington) as an alcoholic pilot (Cliff Robertson’s 1980 feature The Pilot, anyone?) who pulls off a heroic feat when his plane starts to break down thousands of feet in the air. He saves the majority of lives, but begins to fall under scrutiny when he is suspected of drinking on the job. This entertaining first act (including a brilliantly shot plane crash scene that will make you never want to set foot in a plane ever again) sets up an intriguing plot for the rest of the film, but then begins to fall flat as much of the remainder is comprised mainly of scenes of Whitaker buying alcohol, drinking alcohol and spiraling downward into self destruction.
Of course, a film about addiction will demonstrate how serious his obsession (and denial of his condition) is; yet there is no emotion or relationship that makes Whitaker reconsider or fight. There is nothing for us as an audience to connect to as Washington gives a somewhat emotionless portrayal of Whitaker. Washington puts up a shell as hardened as Whitaker’s, not letting the audience see much more than the glimpse of vulnerability during a funeral scene. He never cracks, he doesn’t struggle emotionally with trying to become a better person – he simply drinks his life away. Only a sudden conflict makes him begin to consider changing his ways. But it’s not for his son, or for his kindred friendship in drug addict Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly (a character that goes absolutely nowhere). As an audience we wanted to connect with Whitaker, to feel for him and want the best for him – but as he pushes us away just as he does to the other characters, it is evident that he has truly failed to earn any kind of redemption. It’s a wonder that Flight is nominated for the two Oscars it has been, and in particular, a wonder that Washington has been recognised for this role when Michael Fassbender’s far superior performance in Shame was entirely overlooked.
Flight also seems to have a lot of trouble defining its tone. One moment may build tension, but it never erupts. Another scene may be deeply saddening, but then burst into sudden comic relief when Whitaker’s friend and drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) places humour where it is unwelcome.
Even the ending is particularly unsatisfying. The inevitable and dreaded hearing for Whitaker is headed by the NTSB’s Ellen Block (portrayed by the wonderful yet criminally underused Melissa Leo) who, despite being built up throughout the film as a tough investigator, ends up being a far more gentle person than the film makes her out to be. Although the message here is clear – Whitaker is his own worst enemy – its clichéd message leads into an even more vapid and inevitable conclusion that leaves the audience feeling empty. With no surprises, the story is miraculously and conveniently tied up in a matter of minutes.
Whilst its flight sequence is wonderfully executed, its aftermath has not been treated with the same careful craftsmanship. What we are left with is a film that long outstays its welcome with little emotional connection to any of its key characters. Films of this nature should have the audience longing for the self-destructive character to truly redeem themselves, yet Flight robs its audience of a justified portrayal of this key development. The film is all potential, with half-hearted execution.