With a few exceptions, good film directors will remain masters of their craft throughout their entire careers. Their boldness may diminish and their choice in projects may meander, but the ability to tell a story through the medium of film never completely goes away. This was made clear in the case of Robert Zemeckis whose new film Flight marks his first live-action directing effort in 12 years. Zemeckis and his longtime cinematographer Don Burgess exhibit remarkable creativity with the camera, putting the audience in the perspective of a protagonist at odds with a myriad of outside forces. With impeccably crafted shot composition, Zemeckis and Burgess create suspense, emphasize character psychology, and master the serio-comic tone that makes this and previous Zemeckis efforts work so well.
Perhaps the best thing the aforementioned pair does with the camera, however, is allow it to linger on Denzel Washington. As the leading man, Washington also makes a glorious return to form with what is easily his best performance since his Oscar-winning 2001 turn in the movie Training Day. His eyes portray a deep sense of guilt while his mouth twists into a smile and delivers one lie after another. His character is an abhorrent, egotistical addict, but Washington portrays an undeniable magnetism that makes his descent endlessly watchable.
That character is Whip Whitaker, a pilot with substance abuse issues who we first see waking up alongside a naked flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez). After a swig of beer and a line of cocaine, Whip dons his pilot uniform for the day’s journey and boards his plane. After clearing some turbulence early in the flight, Whip settles down for an in-flight nap until he is awoken when the plane begins to malfunction. In spite of the panic from his crew and passengers, Whip coolly manages to crash land the plane in a field, saving the lives of 96 of the flight’s 102 passengers.
An investigation reveals that the crash was caused by an equipment failure and simulations reveal that no other pilot is able to re-create what Whip accomplished. Despite the heroic act, however, Whip comes under scrutiny because of the alcohol and drugs found in his toxicology report. Pilot union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Chicago defense lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) are brought in for damage control, encouraging Whip to twist the truth and misplace blame in order to save himself and the pilot’s union from charges. Meanwhile Whip hides out with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) where his old vices come back to haunt him.
The narrative is a pretty clear metaphor for the United States political system, wherein even the most well-intentioned individuals are forced to become liars. Some viewers might even be inclined to find direct parallels between characters in the movie and aspects of American politics. However, there is more significance and satisfaction in viewing the film as a struggle between man and God. The crash is deemed a “miracle” by the media and public who thank God for saving so many souls, but the egotistical Whip can’t allow a higher power to get the credit for what he accomplished. His journey unfolds like a reverse 12-step program as he continually denies a higher power and gradually adds to the list of people he has wronged.
The narrative risks becoming tedious as Whitaker continually sabotages his own recovery by succumbing to just about every temptation placed in his path. However, Washington’s performance never lets it feel repetitive. Despite playing a man who has been getting drunk his entire life, Washington makes every wild bender feel like it has its own consequences, independent from the previous one. The script from screenwriter John Gatins’ (Real Steel) makes the religious characters come off as cartoonish in their zealous devotion, but thanks to Washington’s performance we see that Whip is clearly convicted. Each of his lies has a bitterness that shows Whip is aware of the pain he is causing, but powerless to control himself.
Zemeckis proves his ability to balance tone by contrasting moments of action with moments of stillness. A kinetic plane crash scene in the film’s first act proves to be just as suspenseful as Whip staring down a fridge full of alcohol near the end of the film. The reason is because the stakes are equivalent; in both situations one false move could mean death for our protagonist. These scenes leave the audience to ponder free will and whether or not resistance to God is really worth the fight.
The film could have chosen a much bolder ending instead of the predictable route it takes in the climactic final scene, but the obvious ending and superfluous final speech does not take away from the excellent moral dilemma at the film’s center and the magnificent craft with which it unfolds.
Bottom Line: Despite some flaws in the script, Denzel Washington’s performance and Robert Zemeckis’ direction make Flight one of the best movies about faith in years.