December 10, 2012

MOVIES: Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

After spending far too many years lost in the uncanny valley of CGI animation, Zemeckis makes a fine return to live action.

Denzel Washington stars as airline pilot "Whip" Whitaker, who is flying a short hop from Orlando to Atlanta when there's a horrifying disaster. There's mechanical failure in the middle of a storm, which may or may not have been exacerbated by Whip's reckless flying as he attempted to avoid the storm. Whip makes an audacious series of manuevers and manages to land the plane in an open field. His heroism is mitigated not only by his recklessness, but by the fact that he's drunk and high on cocaine. To add to the moral ambiguity, there's the possibility that Whip's miraculous landing was aided by his intoxication; a sober pilot might never have attempted such a crazy save.

That's the setup for a story that we've certainly seen before: the redemption and salvation of an addict, aided (of course) by the love of a good woman. And even more than usual, the religious overtones of "redemption and salvation" are fully intended; there is a strong undercurrent of Christian morality in the movie. One of the flight attendants has been trying for years to get Whip to join her at church; the co-pilot is a devout "will you pray with me" type; the passengers on the plane are always always always referred to as "102 souls," as opposed to "people" or "passengers."

There are a few too many moments in which Zemeckis and writer John Gatins give in to the cliches of the genre. Whip's love interest is an addict with a heart of gold (that they found the restraint not to actually make her a hooker is a small miracle), very nicely played by Kelly Reilly. The choice of classic pop/rock songs on the soundtrack are frequently painfully obvious -- "Ain't No Sunshine" during the obligatory pouring the booze down the sink; "Sympathy for the Devil" as John Goodman makes his first entrance as Whip's dealer.

But there is enough that works about the movie to make it successful despite the familiarity of the story. The plane crash is a spectacular action sequence, a thrilling and terrifying scene with impeccable special effects work. Supporting performances from Reilly, Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood are strong.

And at the center of the movie is Washington, delivering one of his very best performances. Whip is so accustomed to lying and hiding his drinking that it's not until fairly late in the movie, in a sequence where he actually has sobered up, that we realize in retrospect how hard he's been working to maintain that illusion of normalcy. It's beautifully detailed work.

Very much worth seeing, though obviously not for those with fear-of-flying issues.

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