REVIEW ROUND-UP: ‘Flight’ Closes NYFF on a High Note

Though I only caught a week of the madness, the 50th New York Film Festival was a wild, unexpectedly emotional ride. Life of Pi left me unsatisfied for lack of substance, but in awe of the visual revelation of Ang Lee. Tabu found subtle ways of evoking African tensions, while Kinshasa Kids was headache inducing in its unintelligible roar. Fill the Void gave humor to a trepidatious marriage drama, whereas Our Children took the darker, more tragically draining route, both to powerful effects. Nicole Kidman knocked me sideways with her often hilariously depraved work in the swamp-gothic tale of The Paperboy. Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love left me lost by its indifference, while Olivier Assayas knew exactly where his heart was in Something in the Air.

Not Fade Away was an oddly soulless depiction of 60’s rock scene from where I was sitting, though the Minneapolis crew will be able to chime in on it soon enough via the Twin Cities Film Festival. My experience at the festival ended on a graceful note with Michael Haneke’s universally praised withering romance, Amour. Though I missed the second week of the festival, I’d already caught on to Pablo Larrain’s No weeks before the festival started, and that remains the event’s greatest acquisition. The positive receptions continued on in my absence with Lincoln‘s ecstatic debut at Monday’s secret screening, and now as the festival has been put to an end, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight has received a heartening sendoff as the Closing Night feature.

Mind you that this happy ending doesn’t change the Oscar race in quite the same way that Life of Pi and Lincoln did with their premieres. It did, however, have a more public outing than the secret screening, and even the cool reviews found a positive conclusion. Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist was quite satisfied with the film, up until the final stretch that is.

Most troubling is the ham-fisted final act, that falters and devolves, from a screenwriting sense, into the disconcertingly ridiculous and then Hallmark card-like sentimenta (not the mention the fact that it strains credulity). It’s as if John Gatins’ script cannot (nor can Zemeckis) commit to the engaging, well-acted, mostly well-crafted drama that’s come before it, and instead, tries to amplify conflict and drama by hitting rock bottom. Dramatically wise on paper, Washington’s final opus of falling off the wagon seem unearned, unfair and all too easy (and then you’re slapped with the most unsubtle shot in the history of addiction drama, to add further insult). It’s difficult to empathize with and invest in the character when he seemingly cannot come to terms with himself. While Washington’s Whip does grapple with an internal struggle that’s soaked in lies, denial, self-loathing and more… his final act of redemption is far too predictable… as every other option of salvation has been exhausted by his self-destructiveness.

Less reserved in enthusiasm from the Indiewire crew is Eric Kohn, who is especially pleased with Denzel Washington’s strong work as lead performer.

Beyond its impressive special effects (a touchstone of Zemeckis’ career), “Flight” foregrounds movie stars in firm control of their material, particularly its leading man: Denzel Washington delivers one of his most astute roles in years as Captain Whip Whitaker, the alcoholic pilot of a doomed plane who manages to land it in a spectacular feat before dealing with the investigation into his culpability. Zemeckis’ tight direction jives nicely with John Gatis’ long-admired screenplay, resulting in a stylishly engaging character study with bold stabs at big ideas.

Kris Tapley of In Contention found the film to be entirely engrossing, recalling undeniable similarities to another of Robert Zemeckis’ films.

The modest similarities between Robert Zemeckis’s last live action film, 2000’s “Cast Away,” and his latest, “Flight,” are interesting. Both begin with a plane crash that changes a man’s life, a man who goes on a journey of finding himself and restarting his life anew. Both are films about rebirth. One chooses a tale of a company guy stranded on a desert island to convey the theme. The other chooses that of a pilot caught up in a malfeasance nightmare. Each commits to film one of the most harrowing plane crashes ever seen, but while Tom Hanks’s time-obsessed protagonist in “Cast Away” learns to take his time through life, Denzel Washington’s addiction-afflicted hero in “Flight” learns to admit his problem to the one person he’s still fooling: himself.

Ending a predominantly positive stream is Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter, offering just enough criticism to ground the film from being overblown.

The close scrutiny to Whip’s internal currents cuts two ways, on the one hand investing the drama with a deeply explored and complex central character, on the other weighing it down a bit too much with familiar addiction issues for which the possible answers are ultimately limited and clear-cut. The script commendably advances the notion that Whip had the cojones to make his bold move to save the plane because he was high but then perhaps prolongs the search for exactly how he’ll have to pay the price. At 139 minutes, the film takes a bit longer than necessary to do what it needs to do.

Oscar Chances

As stated before, Flight is not a film to be overestimated. It was enough of an uncertainty before, and it will take more than simple critical backing to make a significant dent in the Oscar race. That is to say that it depends on how favorably audiences react, especially in this year when a box office failure can crush a film’s chances. Perhaps the strongest case can be made for Denzel Washington in lead actor, with few supporting players truly hogging the spotlight. On a technical level, I could also see a bid for visual effects, but that depends entirely on exactly how breathtaking that plane crash is. All in good time.

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