After dabbling in the world of creepy pseudo-realistic motion capture with Beowulf, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, Robert Zemeckis returns to the land of the living with the tonally muddled, Oscar-ripe drab-drama Flight.
Academy Award winner Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitman. After a night of debauchery, he wakes up in his birthday suit, swigs on leftover beer, tokes a joint, does a line of coke, and fools around with the brazenly naked lady at his bedside. All that before breakfast, he heads out to work, donning aviator’s uniform and a beaming smile. “This guy’s a pilot? For whom? Ryanair, surely?” We should be appalled by his unethical and offensively illegal behaviour but, hey, it’s Denzel. Who can argue with that lovable rogue?
This is ostensibly Flight‘s irrevocable issue. Playing a neglectful father, a repressed manic depressive and an irresponsible substance abuser, this may be his most psychologically enriched character since his eponymous turn in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X , but Denzel is just too darn charming for the drama to resonating or have the impact it is so desperately hunting for. It’s a good performance, but one stifled by Zemeckis’ lack of ballsy direction.
This isn’t for lack of trying, however. In what must be the most extraordinary, and vicariously terrifying flight scene in cinema history, Zemeckis hangs the narrative on one paradoxical dilemma: is Whip the one-in-a-million hero who defied logic and saved 96 passengers in an emergency landing; or is he the inebriated killer of the unfortunate six who failed to escape the crash? It’s a burden that the audience struggles with, whilst the character on screen continues with his alcoholism and emotional inertia.
Placing the monumental action set piece in the first quarter of the film was always going to be a brave narrative ploy, but in effect it’s an unsatisfactory one, as the rest of Flight wallows in psychological, even biblical turmoil. During a cheeky hospital stairwell fag break, Whip meets recovering heroin addict Nicole (played by fiery English actress Kelly Reilly). In no time at all, they are romantically linked, both out of sexual attraction and mutual desperation as sparring buddies to help kick their addictions. All the while, pilot union official Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and acerbically tongued attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) try to convince airplane manufacturing officials of Whip’s honour and innocence. It’s a court battle that will be easily won, but one that Whip can win only if he stays sober.
Written by Real Steel‘s John Gatins, the Oscar nominated original screenplay is riddled with redemption story clichés and pious undertones. There’s also an odd mix of tone, shifting between the melancholic (an emotionally draining father and son confrontation), to the downright frivolous, (with John Goodman stepping in, in true Argohttps://theframeloop.com/2012/12/06/338argo/ fashion as Whip’s wise cracking coke dealer). Such ping-ponging leaves you confused in the middle. It’s as if Zemeckis wants to tell daring adult stories through feeble sentimentality, a la Forrest Gump.
A dogged fan of 2000′s Cast Away, I was thrilled to see Zemeckis’ return to live action filmmaking. Thirteen years later, with three disappointing motion-capture animations in the can, it’s as if Zemeckis has forgotten how to engage with real human emotion altogether. A fantastic opening thirty minutes, but the less aggrandised, more cerebral moments that follow fail to strike a chord.
Give this project to Darren Aronofsky or Sam Mendes and you could have had a mini masterpiece. With Zemeckis, it’s as insipid and synthetic as an in-flight dinner.