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Non-Review Review: Flight

Flight has a lot to recommend it. It has an interesting subject, a fantastic central performance and wonderful supporting cast. As a result, it’s a shame that the movie makes such a mess of all these things. Flight is never less than interesting and Washington is always watchable, but it isn’t quite as compelling as a two-hour drama film needs to be. Director Robert Zemeckis struggles a bit with the tone of the piece, and Flight seems to be a bit all over the place, making it quite difficult to enjoy and hard to engage with.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

Addiction is a very heavy piece of subject matter. It’s the kind of thing that everybody has some experience of – direct or indirect, in one form or another. It also lends itself to these sorts of films because those suffering with it often follow a familiar arc. There’s the initial functional stages, there’s the dramatic decline, and then there’s the possibility of recovery. It’s easy enough to fashion a character’s journey through that sort of addiction so that it meets the three-act structure.

And that, perhaps, is one of the problems with Flight. Denzel Washington plays Captain William Whitaker, a pilot dealing with substance abuse problems. He’s managed to conceal his problems for quite some time, and the film joins him at a point where he can mix a drink with one hand while addressing the passengers and crew with the other. The problem, however, is that it feels a little bit on the nose. Whitaker doesn’t really seem to try too hard to conceal his alcoholism, and we have no indication that his behaviour has deteriorated of late.

Up in the air...

Up in the air…

Admittedly, we only see him after one night, but the implication is that this sort of behaviour is not uncommon. In fact, one of his stewardesses comments that she has a seat reserved for him at her church, suggesting that his problems are not the best-kept secret. His co-pilot comments that he stinks of booze, and at one stage Whitaker is so hung over that he falls asleep in the cockpit itself. None of this is especially subtle and Whitaker might as well have “I’m an alcoholic” tattooed on his forehead.

I understand that addiction restricts a person’s ability to behave rationally, but the film tries to convince us that Whitaker was at least a functional alcoholic. It’s hard to imagine that either nobody had lodged an official complaint, or that Whitaker had never let his problem dramatically impact his career. There are smaller moments that work, that feel like legitimate indicators of his problem – for example, how carefully and how thoroughly he hides alcohol on his father’s farm – but the film comes on a bit too strong and a bit too clumsily in places.

He's a good man...

He’s a good man…

It should be noted that this is a script problem, and Washington does his best to hold the film together. Washington really is fantastic, and he does a lot of the movie’s heavy-lifting, convincing us that there’s a human being at the heart of all these plot twists and turns. Although we don’t necessarily like Whitaker as a person, Washington makes us understand him, and it’s hard not to hope for redemption. Some of the sequences are quite harrowing, and Washington sells it, but he struggles because the movie is a bit all over the place.

Part of the problem can be seen with the supporting cast. Zemeckis has put together an absolutely fantastic supporting ensemble for Washington. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood are as reliable as ever. Tamara Tunie is great. John Goodman gives the movie a nice healthy dose of energy whenever he appears. James Badge Dale only appears for one short scene, but he is fantastic. I actually am quite impressed with how Dale has developed as an actor. He’s come a long way from 24.

Hearing problems...

Hearing problems…

The problem, however, is the fact that these characters wander in and out of Whitaker’s story, none of them really being a consistent presence. The movie picks up when they are around – giving everything a sense of vitality that is (understandably) missing from the harrowing scenes documenting the depths of Whitaker’s addiction. The result is a movie that feels tonally all over the place, and that seems to suffer from whiplash between its multiple moods.

Whitaker’s addiction is mostly a source of drama, but it can also be comedy when his friends try desperately to prepare him for an important meeting the morning following a binge. It feels a little strange, with the movie rapidly alternating between sincere earnestness and cynical detachment. It never really works quite as well as it should, and the film suffers because it is very difficult to pin down.

Cracking up...

Cracking up…

There’s also the fact that Whitaker’s character arc seems a little trite. Addiction is a complicated subject, and Whitaker’s character arc is so conventional that it almost feels like it does those suffering with these problems a bit of a disservice. Compare the ambiguity of Shame, for example, with the ending of Flight. Shame undoubtedly feels more natural and more convincing, while Flight suffers from feeling a little too conventional.

There are moments when you can see Zemeckis’ flare at work. For example, the movie’s opening set piece looks absolutely fabulous, and it’s not something you would ever want to show anybody who is afraid of flying. It’s tense, it’s dramatic, it’s suspenseful. It really is well put together. Similarly, Zemeckis can occasionally make the drama work very well – there’s a powerful sequence at a hotel mini-bar that is absolutely stunning thanks to both Washington’s performance and Zemeckis’ direction.

Just plane trouble...

Just plane trouble…

Unfortunately, both director and lead are saddled with a mess of a script that can’t take full advantage of their respective talents. Flight should be a lot better than it ultimately is. Unfortunately, it never truly takes off.

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