Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 138 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Remember that last section in Cast Away when Tom Hanks finally makes it home and is faced with the trauma of seeing how life just went on without him? His girlfriend's now married with kids. He's sleeping on the floor with a volleyball. That third act made the movie for me. It would have been so easy to stop and just call it a win when he got off the island, but director Robert Zemeckis just kept plowing through, knowing full well that the story was just starting and it would have been criminal to deprive viewers of at least a piece. Now with Flight, he's made an entire film about it. The script begins where most movies end, using its entire running time to explore an aftermath and dispense fascinating details we're unaccustomed to getting.
The happy ending comes first, or so it seems. Facing massive equipment failure and diving fast, Airline captain William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) rolls SouthJet flight 227 upside down before crash landing in a field outside Atlanta, saving almost all the 102 passengers and crew on board. The only problem: He was drunk and high on cocaine after having spent the night with a flight attendant (Nadine Velasquez). That his condition didn't cause the crash (we think) is one of the screenplay's most creative touches since going that route would have been way too easy and a lot less morally complicated. In fact, the film's quite clear in presenting the notion that there's a better than great chance no other pilot, sober or not, would have known what to do in that situation, much less been able to execute it. If not for Whip, everyone would likely be dead. The bad news is that six people still are, and he and the airline have to answer for it.
At its core, Flight is really an exploration of addiction and guilt. If an event like this can't get someone to stop drinking and using drugs, what can? For Whip the downward spiral is just starting. A deadbeat dad in full denial about the severity of his problem, he miraculously walks away from the crash with minor injuries, only to turn on the news and discover he's a hero. What's strange is that he mostly is. But the NTSB's investigation is heating up and the toxicology reports are coming in. His biggest ally in the battle is an old buddy named Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a pilots union rep. Joining him is criminal attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), whose soften-spoken demeanor belies the fact that he's great at what he does and works tirelessly to keep Whip out of jail. They really want to help but he's having nothing of it, instead hiding out at his parents' abandoned farmhouse and drowning his sorrows in a bottle. His enters a complicated relationship with a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), whom he meets at the hospital and is trying to turn her life around following a near-fatal overdose.
I've probably already revealed too much, as the rest of the film is full of tiny details concerning the fallout from the crash and how those involved with it (directly or indirectly) view Whip's responsibility in it, which is anything but cut and dry. You can only imagine the amount of aviation research Oscar nominated screenwriter John Gatins had to put in to make sure all those details came out right and the work Zemeckis had to do the insure the crash at the beginning has the emotional impact it does. We've seen a lot of terrifying plane crashes on film but this is the first to literally take us inside the cockpit and give us a feel for what it must be like for the pilot and co-pilot when all possible options have been exhausted. And for the passengers certain they're all going to die and appear to be right.
Oscar nominated Denzel Washington gives one of most affecting performances in years as a tortured addict caught in a web of his own lies.Whip knows his silence is morally, if not criminally, reprehensible but he's too consumed by his own demons and false pride to admit a problem, much less accept help. What's most shocking is just how much damage it takes for him to get there, with Washington providing unflinching insight into how addiction grabs hold and doesn't let go, practically writing a person out of their own life. Matching him scene-for-scene in her first major co-starring role is relatively unknown English actress Kelly Reilly, who in addition to pulling off a really credible southern accent, is altogether heartbreaking as a junkie torn between trying to turn her own life around and salvaging whatever relationship she has with this total stranger. In a crowded year full of great female supporting turns, hers still stands out out from the pack, making it a bit of a mystery that she really hasn't been recognized for it.
The film is also filled to the brim with scene stealing cameos, the most memorable of which coming from John Goodman, who couldn't be more entertainingly insane as Whip's hippie best friend and drug dealer Harling Mays. His two appearances make a big enough impact that he even gets his own entrance music. Then there's James Badge Dale as a philosophical cancer patient who's either a twisted genius or has just watched too many episodes of Lost. He has only a single scene that can't be spoiled, but it's the film's because of his disturbing brilliance in it. Melissa Leo doesn't play the NTSB official as the villain she could have been, but instead as a fair, intelligent woman asking all the right questions to get to the truth. It's hard to dislike her. The same could be said for Cheadle's attorney, who at first appears to be a pushover but ends being tougher and more determined than anyone expects, even as he's constantly pushed away by his own client. We want to root for him because he's technically and legally right about the crash's cause but the means he uses to make his case are questionable. There are so many grey areas here, but none greyer than the situation involving Whip's co-pilot, well played by Brian Geraghty. When we finally do hear his take on what happened up there, that powerful scene definitely doesn't disappoint.
As we get closer to to the moment of truth for Whip, it's clear things can only end one of two ways. Dark or darker. Neither outcome can in any way be viewed as a win for the protagonist, though one is decidedly less bleak for the audience. The story is the very definition of hitting rock bottom and it's easily the edgiest, darkest thing Zemeckis has ever done. But most will just be happy that he's gone back to directing live-action, at least temporarily abandoning the motion capture CGI silliness he's been dabbling in with clunkers like Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. This picture demonstrates in full why that career diversion was so upsetting and he should have taken those complaints as a compliment. His real gift has always been in telling distinctly human stories and it's great to see the visual effects used more sparingly and effectively in helping to further that. A nearly two and a half hour, R-rated character study about an addict is probably the last thing anyone expected from the director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, but it couldn't have possibly been a more welcome departure. Leaving you with a lot to consider and never taking the easy way out, Flight ends up being anything but predictable.