How time flies! It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Robert Zemeckis last directed a live-action movie in Castaway. A film that involved a monumental plane crash in the first act and had a compelling male lead wrestling with his mental demons. Loneliness and survival in the case of Tom Hanks, alcoholism and addiction in the case of Denzel Washington.
In those terms, both Castaway and Flight share similarities and perhaps represent a return to form for Zemeckis. That’s not to say he’s been idle in the past 13 years. As a Director, he’s been one of the strongest advocates for motion-capture, with The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Those films paving the way for more expansive film-makers to embrace the medium. I’m thinking Cameron, Jackson, Spielberg and so on.
What goes up must come down
There’s a short version of the plot knocking around the internet, which basically says that airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) saves a plane from crashing with some astonishing skill and bravery, but an investigation into malfunctions on the plane reveal mysterious and troubling news.
This is misleading. Within the first 10 minutes it’s clear the story revolves around addiction, particularly alcohol in the case of Whitaker. You could argue the fact the film kicks off with a spectacular action sequence on a plane is merely a device to frame Whip’s struggle with alcoholism and addiction. That said, it makes for a more compelling setting for our anti-hero. Someone responsible for hundreds of lives.
Washington and the dark side
Ok, let’s cut to the chase. This is hands-down, Washington’s best performance since Training Day in 2001. Granted, Man on Fire and American Gangster were good, but his performance here fully justifies the Oscar nomination he received.
Earlier I mentioned similarities between Castaway and Flight that, no doubt in part, drew Zemeckis to the script. If we continue to look for patterns it’s safe to say Washington must have drawn a few parallels between corrupt Detective Alonzo and alcoholic pilot Whip.
It’s clear Washington figured out some time ago that anti-heroes are far more fun to play and come much easier to him as characters. There’s something about his natural charisma and screen presence, combined with his darker nature, that really sparks on screen. So much so that he’s quietly become an expert at tapping into these characters, firmly seizing the parts when they come around.
Come fly with me
In terms of supporting cast: Whilst in the hospital recovering from his plane crash, Whip befriends a beautiful woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who is also an addict. Reilly as the love interest/friend plays her small part well, reminding me a little of the type of characters Amy Adams plays from time to time. Diamond-in-the-rough types.
In a film that’s perhaps a little weighty (understandable given the subject matter) it’s lifted by lighter moments, particularly any scenes involving Whip’s dealer Harling (John Goodman). Lumbering in at key moments like a doped up leviathan, he steals every scene. Following Argo, it seems Goodman is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, revelling in those slightly-longer-than-cameo parts.
All in all, Flight is a commendable return to live-action from Zemeckis, with a towering, captivating performance from Washington. A little long in places – like so many movies these days – but with a heady mix of drama and action that should more than satisfy.