The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 9, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Washington does best to keep 'Flight' airborne

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Robert Zemeckis makes his return to live action filmmaking after a decade-long foray into making animated films featuring dead-eyed characters in soulless adaptations of books that didn't necessarily need adapting.

Given that he is the director behind such classics as the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Forrest Gump" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", it was good to see him get back to live action. Throw in one of the last true bankable movie stars in Denzel Washington, and there's plenty to get excited about with "Flight."

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a defeated man who has failed as a husband, as a father, as a lover and as a man. He has succumbed to the demons of alcohol and drugs, but he doesn't let his afflictions alter his career path as a commercial airline pilot.

One day, after staying up all night drinking and "entertaining" a flight attendant, Whip goes in for a routine short flight. In order to get into flying shape, he does a couple of lines of cocaine to counteract the effects of the alcohol, then heads in to work.

The flight experiences quite a bit of turbulence, so Whip pushes the plane to a sliver of undisturbed sky. Everything seems routine after that, until the plane goes into a dive, forcing Whip to do some unorthodox maneuvering to bring the plane to flat ground and glide in for a crash landing.

Though six on board are killed in the crash, Whip is hailed as a hero for doing what no other pilot could have accomplished: landing a plane with no power and not killing everyone on board. All looks good until the blood results come back, showing the high alcohol and cocaine content in Whip's system Ñ crimes that, coupled with the deaths on the plane, could result in a life sentence.

Whip's union representative (Bruce Greenwood) decides that a coverup is in order, so he calls in the only person more detestable than a union rep Ñ a union lawyer (Don Cheadle). The lawyer commences to get Whip's blood test results thrown out on technicalities. It is then up to Whip to stay clean and sober until an inquiry into the reasons behind the crash can be concluded.

There are two things that work well in "Flight." The first is the plane crash, a harrowing and intense sequence that will do more for Greyhound's business than a year's worth of advertising. Zemeckis knows how to stage an action scene, and it is a white-knuckle experience.

The other positive of the film is Washington himself. I've long held that Washington can make a mediocre film good, that his mere presence in a movie can elevate it to something close to exceptional. Unfortunately, in this instance, he is asked to do a little too much and cannot overcome the weakness of the script or the overreliance on the obvious.

I remember Zemeckis having a more subtle touch. Perhaps too many years of working with actors converted into ones and zeros has dulled his skills. But Zemeckis sacrifices any hint of subtlety, apparently feeling the viewer might be too dumb to catch on to the subtext, and thus it must be blatant.

For example, in the opening scene, right before Whip downs the remains of the previous night's beer, his clock radio goes off, playing the Barenaked Ladies' "Alcohol." Now, even if this was 1998, "Alcohol" wasn't getting too much radio play. And given that it is 14 years past the peak of the Ladies' popularity, I have a hard time believing that they'd be getting much radio play at all, and if so, it'd be with some of their more popular hits. But for some reason Zemeckis feels that we need this song to cue us in that Whip might have a problem with booze.

The theme of faith is set up early in the movie. Many survivors believe that it must have been God's will that they were spared, and that Whip was put in the cockpit to bring them to safety. It allowed for what could have been an interesting examination of faith in a man who puts faith in no one and nothing.

Instead, it is used as an excuse by a lazy screenwriter to clumsily introduce a series of ludicrous storylines, including those of an addict/love interest, easy access to booze before a hearing and a drug deal.

And this isn't even the most ludicrous part. The hearing falls into a clumsily set up but highly predictable pattern, allowing for emotional catharsis for the character but disgust and annoyance for the audience.

The first two thirds of the film showed a very damaged and self-destructive man coming to terms with his second chance and a hero worship that he doesn't feel he deserves. The last third is a contrived and unearned bow used to try to redeem a man who is ultimately irredeemable.

Washington does yeoman's work in delivering such a sympathetic performance for such an unsympathetic character. He convincingly portrays a heavily conflicted man who cannot admit that he needs help, but so desperately does.

He almost saves the film, holding it up for as long as he can before it finally tips over into the land of melodrama and hokiness. And for that he deserves a lot of credit. It's just a shame that he wasn't given better material to work with.