Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Premise: When an airliner suffers a terminal mechanical failure, the pilot (Denzel Washington) pulls a daring maneuver that saves most of the passengers and crew from certain death. But an investigation of the crash reveals that the pilot was under the influence of alcohol, putting him in jeopardy of prison time.
What Works: Flight is a return to form for director Robert Zemeckis. Most recently, Zemeckis had been making motion capture animation films such as The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. Flight brings Zemeckis back to live action filmmaking and it is among the director’s best films. Of his previous movies, Flight is most similar to Contact in that it is a mature film with spiritual undertones but in many more ways this is new territory for Zemeckis. A protégé of Steven Spielberg, most of Zemeckis’ films have been relatively family friendly pictures like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Flight is a mature and at times hard edged story that does not shrink from the seedy and tawdry elements of life. The depiction of drug abuse is done convincingly in the film with an appropriate regard for it. One of the pitfalls of movies about addiction is the storyteller’s regard for the abuser. Lesser filmmakers tend to hold the addict at a distance, making no distinction between the disease and the patient, and condemn him or her in the process. Better filmmakers understand that addiction is a symptom of underlying issues and provide a look into the life and psyche of the addict without excusing his or her behavior; movies like Requiem for a Dream and Shame do this especially well and Flight takes a similar approach, even though it isn’t quite as severe as those films. But Flight does have characters that are more than their drug habits and the performers who play them do a great job. The film is led by Denzel Washington as the alcoholic pilot and it is one of the actor’s best performances. Washington’s image as an actor has largely been founded on playing likable heroes. Even his tougher performances were usually about outwardly hardened men with a heart of gold underneath. But in Flight Washington lets himself go to places hat he’s never been before on film and it is a bold and risky performance. Equally compelling is Kelly Reilly as a heroin addict who befriends Washington’s character. Reilly’s character is frail but dignified and their blossoming relationship gives the film an emotional center that realizes the cost of the pilot’s addiction. The performances of Flight are so good in part because the actors have been given an excellent script to work with. The story is rich with ethical twists and turns and the body of the story continually complicates itself in ways that confront the audience with moral conundrums.
What Doesn’t: Flight is about an alcoholic and stories about substance abuse have an inherent challenge. Addiction stories like Flight often follow a pattern in which substance abuse begins as a pleasurable activity that gradually becomes more painful until it ends in a state of unquestionable misery. It is necessary for a film to show the pleasurable effects of drug use because it provides the reason that the abuser uses it in the first place. But that can lead to what might be described as “Dr. Drew syndrome,” in which deviant or destructive behavior is offered up to be enjoyed voyeuristically by the audience and then condemned in the ending to allow audiences an easy out so that they do not hate themselves for loving the indulgence. Flight does follow this pattern, at least to an extent, and the finale of the film could be criticized as a moralistic copout instead of going for a tougher, more cynical ending.
Bottom Line: Flight is a very good movie. Even though it may be somewhat compromised by its ending, the excellent performances and the intelligent story make it worth a look.
Episode: #417 (December 2, 2012)