Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Nadine Velazquez
You may like this if you liked: Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008), Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) lives an extremely hedonistic lonely life fuelled by alcohol, drugs and women. On a routine flight a mechanical failure leads the plane to crash. However, through quick thinking and unconventional flying tactics Whitaker manages to crash land the plane in a field after rolling the plane in mid air and avoids a much higher fatality rate then there could have easily been. He is at first paraded as hero but after a routine blood test it is revealed that he was actually intoxicated while flying the plane and Whitaker faces the potential of a prison sentence despite saving the lives of so many people. Whitaker protests his innocence and despite being told to hold everything together while the court case is going on, his naturally destructive personality takes over.
Robert Zemeckis is of course renowned for directing family films, so it was certainly interesting how we would approach an adult film with some very dark themes. Well firstly it has to be said that his direction of the plane crash scene is superb and is an extremely gripping, intense and quite claustrophobic scene. As for Denzel, this is most definitely his film. Anyone who knows me will know my views on Denzel, I think he is a great actor but also in every role he plays he always seems to be extremely self assured and in complete control of every situation he finds himself in. This is a role slightly different, like Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001) in which he plays a very unpredictable and troubled character who is on the edge. For a character driven narrative like this where the protagonist is pretty much in every scene, often alone, a big performance is needed and Denzel does not disappoint, thoroughly deserving his Oscar nod. Despite Whitaker’s obvious flaws and naturally destructive personality, Denzel gives the character sympathy and a sense of tragedy which was always going to be essential for this film to work. Though we of course despise certain elements of his personality, we do care for Whitaker and genuinely want him to change for the better as there is obvious good and natural compassion in him.
As generic as this story might sound, it is very gripping and involving. Due to Whitaker’s personality this film can be very frustrating, but that adds to the tension and drama. There was always a risk that Flight would turn into a predictable clichéd melodrama, and though some clichés are of course unavoidable, this is a film that grips and engages until the very end.
A lot has been said about the ending and it appears to have divided opinions. I personally felt the ending was perfect, without giving too much away, I felt it was cathartic and extremely emotionally satisfying. One of the major successes of Flight is that it never becomes predictable like so many other films that Hollywood churns out these days. When the film had finished I personally felt a great sense of emotion after spending over two hours with this character, which is very satisfying as so many Hollywood films often end with a real sense of emotional alienation and emptiness.
Despite all this, there were for me a few problems with Flight that stops it from being as truly great as it could have been. I personally felt that John Goodman’s character was not particularly necessary and he was almost in it just to add another name. Due to the nature of the narrative even big names like Don Cheadle have actually quite minor roles and little screen time, but they invested in big names just to put them on the poster. I also felt that Flight was maybe 20 minutes too long, there were many scenes throughout the narrative that did not add anything. Most of these scenes involved Kelly Reilly’s character of Nicole, a reformed drug addict who he meets in the hospital after the accident. Reilly gives a committed performance and I completely understand why she is there, to give Denzel someone to talk to so we can learn more about him. However, in my view this feels a little lazy as her character feels two dimensional and underused leading to a little feeling of frustration. Of course in a film of this nature it is only about Denzel, I understand that, and to develop Reilly’s character more would make this film even longer. However, it seems her character is only there as a narrative tool for the benefit of showing us more about the character of Whitaker which for me is just a little lazy on the part of screenwriter John Gatins. However, without revealing too much, her character does play a small part in the emotion and catharsis of the ending, but maybe that was put in to simply justify her existence in the first place as it would not have actually made that much of a difference. I must admit these are slightly pedantic issues with what is otherwise an excellent character piece of a film
In summary, Flight is a refreshing character piece that is emotionally involving and gripping proving that Hollywood can churn out great memorable films when it wants to.